Comment: How Biden can beat covid-19 — and the next pandemic

Biden can use the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the efforts of several agencies.

By Timothy L. O’Brien and Nir Kaissar / Bloomberg Opinion

In early spring, as covid-19 began marching across the U.S., President Trump described it as an existential challenge. “We’re at war. In a true sense, we’re at war,” he said. “Look, the greatest thing we can do is win the war. The war is against the virus. That’s the war.”

He was right. And recently there’s been heartening and exciting news from the battlefront. Three companies, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, have announced promising results from late-stage trials of two possible covid-19 vaccines. If all goes well, they might be generally available early next year.

So far, though, we’ve been losing this war. The coronavirus is setting new caseload and hospitalization records nationally. Its spread is essentially uncontrolled in all but two states, Vermont and Maine. An untold number of the country’s 11.2 million covid-19 survivors still suffer heart, lung and brain damage and other maladies, and almost 250,000 Americans have died.

A lackluster and uncoordinated federal response has allowed covid-19 to do much more damage than it should have. Next time — and there undoubtedly will be future crises of some stripe — we’ll have to do better. President-elect Joe Biden will soon have an opportunity to reset the terms of engagement; and a strong first step would involve overhauling and repositioning the Department of Homeland Security to help meet the public-health, infrastructure and workplace shortfalls covid-19 has exposed.

DHS was established in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a counterterrorism agency. During the Trump presidency, it has taken on enhanced, and controversial, responsibilities policing borders and enforcing immigration policy. In a Biden administration, DHS’s national security mission would change significantly. The White House could empower the agency to coordinate the resources and initiatives of several federal agencies — including the departments of Treasury, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education — to bolster national preparedness in key areas such as public health, workplace safety and infrastructure.

DHS could also oversee and help coordinate federal investments targeting these areas: such as the creation of a national network of public hospitals and medical clinics, more robust monitoring of potential pandemics, enhanced public transportation, and digital access in low-income urban and rural areas. Endowing DHS with an investment fund to help pay for its efforts would give the department added leverage and help the country redefine what “national security” means in a post-covid world.

America’s readiness for the next public-health war will be measured by how quickly the government can recognize the enemy; marshal resources, including medical professionals, clinics, hospitals and treatments; and properly educate citizens about how best to respond. Insight, preparedness and good management — all of which have been missing from the White House’s repertoire this year — will be essential.

For all of this to work, a reconfigured DHS would have to have strong presidential support and be led by a director capable of overcoming possible turf battles among the various agencies he or she would coordinate. The DHS director would also bring new and added leverage to the mix through the administration of an endowment. Such an investment portfolio, run by the government in trust for the American people, is not a new idea. Many countries and even some U.S. states already have them.

With congressional approval, the Treasury Department could raise the money needed to seed the fund. Interest rates are at historic lows, so the government could raise money cheaply and, through the fund’s investments, enable it to generate enough profit to pay its expenses and finance its core mission. Some of the shortcomings of last spring’s CARES Act could be addressed through the creation of this new fund; it could provide the kind of federal support for workers and businesses that lapsed over the past summer and has since become a political football.

A fund seeded with $3 trillion that earns 7 percent annually — let’s say — could have about $90 billion a year to spend on public initiatives, after paying interest on the debt and accounting for inflation. It could spend considerably more if it were to generate a higher return. Over time, the fund’s ongoing investment in the country could also save the federal government money. There’s a creeping cost to neglecting public health, education and infrastructure, as is now apparent across a number of metrics.

As the coronavirus has laid bare, such neglect sends policy makers scrambling for solutions in a crisis. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted in an interview with the New York Times that a “uniform” strategy for defeating covid-19 would be superior to the “disjointed” state efforts we now have.

DHS, armed with robust coordinating powers and the funds needed to make innovative policy approaches a reality, would help the country anticipate crises and provide the leadership and resources to handle them when they arrive.

The present covid-19 war will be won only after we have suffered once-unimaginable loss of life and economic hardship. This should be a wake-up call. Let’s start now to plan for — and win — the next war.

Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Nir Kaissar is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the markets.

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