The COVID-19 Disaster Has Been Decades In the Making—And Both Republicans and Democrats are to Blame | Opinion

Human history is replete with unanticipated catastrophic events that come like a bolt from the blue. During World War II, both Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as strategic surprises. Then as now, intelligence warnings were ignored.

Other shockers include the Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel during the Jewish high holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973, and of course the 9/11 strike by Al Qaeda against the U.S. Again, intelligence reports prior to the events were ignored or did not reach the right leaders.

Much ink has been spilled on the nature of these intelligence and strategic failures. What unites them, however, is the limited circle of people who were in the know, the military/terrorist nature of the threats, and the national mobilization and warfare that ensued in response. Things were never the same again after these wars.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has already claimed more U.S. casualties than either 9/11, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, or the Tet Offensive should not have come as a surprise. But when all is said and done, it is likely to claim more American lives than the Vietnam and Korean wars combined (58,200 and 44,500 respectively.)

Since the 1940s, the U.S., the USSR, China and other countries were known to be working on biological warfare, and it stands to reason that labs, nation-wide first response structures, and vital medicine and equipment stockpiles should have been put in place to protect the civilian populations. In the U.S. and Europe, clearly they were not.

An airborne, highly contagious respiratory infection was the most likely candidate for a devastating pandemic. Warnings abounded over the last 20 years: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and Ebola—all demonstrated the clear and present danger.

The writing was on the wall. In 2007, a group of scientists in Hong Kong published a seminal article called "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection" warning about the deadly respiratory virus jumping from bats via exotic game food animals such as civets to humans and causing a pandemic.

While early infections were effectively stopped through early interventions and severe travel bans, the U.S. and other countries failed to learn the necessary lessons and prepare for a "big one". In 2003 President Bill Clinton created the Strategic National Stockpile—which operates under the direction of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to store crucial medications and life-saving supplies, including respirators, as an adjunct to state stockpiles in the event of a widespread public health emergency. Today we have learned that that the national stockpile was woefully inadequate—not just insufficient to handle the kind of biological warfare attacks I learned about as a school kid in the U.S.S.R in the 1970, but now failing to handle a pandemic like COVID-19.

Subsequent U.S. administrations, including George W. Bush's, Barack Obama's and Donald Trump's, failed to upgrade and restock the Strategic Stockpile, including with much-needed N95 masks. Very recently, President Trump announced that the Stockpile will run out of Personal Protective Equipment in the next couple of weeks, and the hospitals, cities, and states are on their own.

This failure in preparedness is certainly not confined to the national level. In 2015, the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law noted that New York would need to purchase thousands of ventilators in the event of a major outbreak, as well as train additional personnel in how to use them. Instead of following through on these potential lifesaving measures, Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration sought ways to cut healthcare spending; endorsing the Task Force's November 2015 Ventilator Allocation Guidelines. This is a 272-page report that essentially discusses how to determine which patients will or will not receive respiratory assistance in a severe outbreak. Quoting from the report, page 37: New York State has stockpiled 1,750 ventilators to help reduce ventilator need in the face of the moderate scenario; however, there are no current plans to buy enough ventilators for the most severe model. The State's current approach to stockpiling a limited number of ventilators balances the need to prepare for a potential pandemic against the need to maintain adequate funding for current and ongoing health care expenses. Furthermore, severe staffing shortages are anticipated, and purchasing additional ventilators beyond a threshold will not save additional lives, because there will not be an enough trained staff to operate them. In the event of an overwhelming burden on the health care system, New York will not have sufficient ventilators to meet critical care needs despite its emergency stockpile. If the most severe forecast becomes a reality, New York State and the rest of the country will need to allocate ventilators and other scarce resources.

Back to the federal level, in 2019, a series of war games were conducted at the National Security Council level. The exercise, called "Crimson Contagion" modeled a massive respiratory epidemic hitting the U.S. and straining the system to the point of failure. The exercise exposed conflicts between the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and HHS, which are supposed to work in tandem to manage an health disaster. Nothing was done. Instead, in 2018 the National Security Council's Senior Director R.-Adm. Timothy Ziemer, who championed pandemic preparedness, was ousted; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) global pandemic budget was drastically cut.

As the COVID-19 epidemic hit, the U.S. intelligence community warned that China was covering up the severity of the disease and projected a global impact. Between December 2019 and March 2020, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) engaged in an epic fail of bureaucratic back-and-forth, utterly unable to produce a government-developed corona virus test. The FDA blocked academic labs and the private sector from producing and distributing one until March.

The cavalier attitude of the U.S. president, who pooh-poohed the threat early on, the bureaucratic public health failure from Beijing to Washington, and the rather slow response of the World Health Organization, which finally declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, has combined to cause a global medical and economic catastrophe of historic proportions.

Moreover, the virologic shenanigans of Chinese "scientists"who allegedly smuggled live SARS and MERS cultures into the U.S. deserve a separate investigation.

For centuries, people have relied on their leaders to identify, manage, and remedy threats to their lives. COVID-19 is the greatest failure of leadership in the Western world since the two world wars. Add it to the 9/11 fiasco, to the 2008 economic crisis, and you begin to get the picture. The world's elites have courted global catastrophe and ignored clear and present danger more than once, and it seems to be happening more frequently.

The U.S. media, which over the last decade has obsessively focused on relatively extraneous issues, from trans-gender bathrooms to British royal family scandals, has also failed to do its job—warning about impending disasters should take higher priority.

The politicians and the expert community, including the degreed bureaucrats at the CDC and FDA, who fiddled with paperwork and procedures while a fire built up in the realm, will have to take responsibility for their abysmal performance—through Congressional hearings and commissions of inquiry.

We need answers, not partisan bickering, to figure out what went wrong, who needs to assume responsibility in order to avoid the horrid price in human life of the next pandemic – and how to reform and reconfigure the global and national public health systems to prevent this from reoccurring. We need extensive audits of other threats to avoid more catastrophic failures of national and global resilience.

The time to take responsibility is now.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis Ltd.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.