State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Accelerating America’s Response to COVID-19

Since the announcements that several highly effective COVID-19 vaccines have been developed, discussion has shifted to the supply chain and the logistical difficulties of manufacturing, distributing and administering the vaccine. It is clear that the current president is more interested in raising funds from his fans than solving problems; it is up to the next president and his team to work with General Gustave F. Perna, the commander of Army Materiel Command and the co-leader of “Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate the process of vaccinating the American public. This is a massive logistical, manufacturing, medical and communication challenge and it needs to be approached on a war-time footing. The Defense Production Act must be used to tap into the private sector’s ingenuity and capacity in order to rapidly vaccinate America and then assist the developing world in its efforts as well.

President-elect Biden said he would urge Americans to mask-up for his first 100 days in office. Let’s use that same time frame to complete a national vaccination project, and vaccinate America by the end of April instead of by September as many are now projecting. It is time to stop this flabby, meandering federal effort to attack this disease and focus on producing all forms of public health capacity: Encouraging masks and social distancing, testing, tracing, isolation, treatment and vaccination. We need an aggressive, all-hands-on-deck mobilization to end this mess, with the new president calling on all Americans to do their part to drive down this disease. Let’s replace the infection and death data on cable news with data on the number of people vaccinated.

America has confronted daunting challenges before, in fact, today is the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. While we are a different nation than the one that fought in World War II, we have more than enough of the wealth, organizational capacity, ingenuity and human resources needed to fight this war.  What is missing is leadership, unity and a sense of mission. The mobilization of America in World War II is worth remembering. According to PBS:

“In 1939, the United States Army ranked thirty-ninth in the world, possessing a cavalry force of fifty thousand and using horses to pull the artillery…In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the president set staggering goals for the nation’s factories: 60,000 aircraft in 1942 and 125,000 in 1943; 120,000 tanks in the same time period and 55,000 antiaircraft guns…In 1941, more than three million cars were manufactured in the United States. Only 139 more were made during the entire war. Instead, Chrysler made fuselages. General Motors made airplane engines, guns, trucks and tanks. Packard made Rolls-Royce engines for the British air force. And at its vast Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the Ford Motor Company performed something like a miracle 24-hours a day. The average Ford car had some 15,000 parts. The B-24 Liberator long-range bomber had 1,550,000. One came off the line every 63 minutes…America launched more vessels in 1941 than Japan did in the entire war. Shipyards turned out tonnage so fast that by the autumn of 1943 all Allied shipping sunk since 1939 had been replaced. In 1944 alone, the United States built more planes than the Japanese did from 1939 to 1945. By the end of the war, more than half of all industrial production in the world would take place in the United States.”

I think we are capable of producing billions of doses of the vaccine packed in little glass vials along with syringes and shipping them to every zip code in America. We can rapidly make the freezers and dry ice we need to ship and store the vaccine. Look at what our grandparents achieved 80 years ago. Again, what has been missing during this pandemic is determined leadership and a sense of common purpose. When the virus hit last spring, it came to places like New York and California first, giving the middle of the country the sense that it wasn’t their problem. When we were treated to the spectacle of the COVID-infected American president minimizing the seriousness of the virus and politicizing masks and social distancing, the odds of developing a determined national response to the virus seemed to evaporate.

Sadly, as our public health experts have told us from the start, this highly contagious virus would eventually spread throughout the nation. In the past month, it has done just that. Last week, over 11,000 people died from this virus. Our total number of deaths is fast approaching 300,000. The acceleration of the virus from Thanksgiving travel has not yet hit. Hospitals in many states are filling up fast and California is implementing its second lockdown. It would seem that the timing may be right for a more determined and aggressive national approach to combatting COVID-19.

While America faces economic, environmental and equity challenges that are deep and profound, none can be seriously addressed until we defeat this virus. The Biden administration must focus on pandemic relief as a singular top priority. Joe Biden’s moderation and empathetic personality might or might not be what you’d order up to lead a great national project, but he must rise to the occasion and use this crisis to unite this nation.

The national effort must not accept a slow and meandering pace of vaccination. Resources must be provided to every state to implement rapid vaccinations free of charge to all. A huge communication initiative must be undertaken to encourage Americans to get vaccinated despite their mistrust of government and of the vaccine itself. Here, in New York City, the firefighters and emergency workers and their unions are resisting vaccination. Assuming the science is sound, it is critical that credible scientists and leaders clearly communicate the safety and importance of the vaccine. At least 75% of Americans need to be vaccinated before we can return to normal life. The communications effort must connect vaccination to a return to normal life. Large businesses and institutions must be recruited to encourage and where possible, require, their employees to be vaccinated.

And when we achieve our goals here in America, we need to focus resources and attention on the parts of the world that do not enjoy our wealth. This virus is a humanitarian crisis. America can regain its role as a global leader by organizing and funding an effort to vaccinate the world. Working through international NGOs and the United Nations, we need to accelerate the process of combatting this virus globally. Driving down the virus in America but leaving it rampant in other parts of the world invites reintroduction of the virus (or its mutant offspring) here in the United States.

Instead of using federal power to track down illegal immigrants and separate children from parents at the border, it would be a relief to focus national power on improving the human condition. While clearly many Americans supported the Trump administration’s “America First” ideology and policies, that approach led us to today’s current health and economic crisis. Despite the recent effort at isolation, technology has brought us a global economy with global markets and supply chains. America can compete with other countries, but it also must cooperate with them as well. This virus and the ones that will follow require international cooperation and resources. We can still root for our home team while retaining support for the league and the rules of the game.

We are tired of this way of life. Since mid-March, normal social interaction has been reduced from the three-dimensional real world to a Zoom screen that is better than nothing, but far from ideal. Small businesses are struggling and disappearing, families are suffering from hunger and are threatened with homelessness. Millions have fallen ill and far too many have died. The fundamental function of government is to protect us, and in the case of COVID-19, it has failed miserably. We need to reduce the threat posed by this virus and resume our effort to build a society that enables opportunity and rewards hard work. America is a diverse nation whose people hold a wide variety of beliefs and values. But surely, we can unite behind a national effort to defeat this virus and rebuild our national economy. Surely…

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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