- Erin Endres
Lessons Learned from COVID-19: Policymaker Recommendations for Future Pandemics (Part I)
March 13, 2023 marked the third anniversary of when COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in the United States (U.S.), and soon after, states began to implement shutdowns. 2020 was a year filled with uncertainty; citizens and federal officials alike were unsure of when the shutdowns would end, not to mention the pandemic itself.
The U.S. response to the pandemic revealed many structural issues within our country’s pandemic preparedness and disaster response procedures. By reflecting on the consequences of various government responses, we can establish future recommendations for policymakers to improve our preparedness, change how we react to pandemic emergencies, and limit the impact of future outbreaks.
Although many Americans have returned to daily life in this new normal, COVID-19 is still causing infections, illnesses, and deaths, especially in underserved communities. As of March 2023, COVID-19 kills an average of 900 to 1,000 people a day worldwide, and the global total death count is about 6.8 million people.
Endemics and emerging diseases are nothing new, as the world has dealt with Ebola, SARS, swine flu, and avian flu in just the past twenty years. In the past few decades, more than forty new infectious diseases have emerged among humans.
It is important to note that there was a fair amount that went right in our nation’s disaster response to this new and shocking pandemic. The expedited investment into research of the virus and the development of vaccines demonstrated our scientific capabilities and offered protection to those who needed it most, such as our elderly population.
Furthermore, in the face of intense pressure, our front-line workers and public health system overcame tremendous challenges and did not collapse. We also witnessed a national outpouring of help and support from many Americans of all backgrounds, which served as a source of hope. Due to its tumultuous nature, not everything could be perfect in our response to the pandemic, but many people came together and put their own lives on hold to support their fellow Americans.
Inconsistent Communication and Dissemination of Information
The pandemic posed many challenges for information-sharing in the U.S. At the beginning, what important officials and scientists knew at first was limited and constantly changing. The evolving nature of COVID-19 information created mistrust of public health sources and further polarized beliefs about the pandemic along political lines. By being more transparent about the evolving nature of data and knowledge about the disease, news sources and scientific organizations could have prevented their credibility from being called into question.
At the outset of a disaster, there is often missing information, conflicting information, and other challenges. What is needed even before a disaster is declared is a coherent communications strategy that manages expectations, reduces panic, and educates the public about procedures and processes.
Furthermore, the COVID response revealed that organizing and consolidating public health information and resources is crucial to providing citizens with access to knowledge and remote and in-person resources. On March 31, 2022, the Biden Administration launched COVID.gov as a “one-stop shop” for resources like vaccines, tests, treatments, masks, and other centralized COVID-19 information.
This type of centralized resource center will not reach everyone on its own, however. Promoting a site like COVID.gov on social media and apps that people use on a daily basis can increase their online accessibility and the public’s knowledge of available resources. Additionally, there need to be resource options in localities without equal access to broadband and internet. It is not only important to have large governing bodies providing central resources. In disaster situations, it is also essential to have community-based resilience and more localized organizations serving the information and resource needs of their communities.
The sharing of nationwide information, along with localized information about confirmed cases through resource centers, can help dispel rumors and misinformation that reduce public trust. People learn and consume information in different ways, so resource communication also needs to be multilayered. This includes translation for English as a Second Language (ESL) citizens and non-internet-based resources for the 42 million Americans who do not have access to broadband.
Lack of Leadership Knowledge About Disasters
One of the largest failures in the U.S. response to COVID-19 was the lack of executive leadership knowledge about diseases and coherent disaster response. For example, former President Trump’s actions during the pandemic response included:
did not follow the guidelines of previously established federal disaster response frameworks,
conducted ambivalent messaging (including discouraging mask-wearing at later stages of the pandemic),
did not roll out contact tracing even seven months into the pandemic when he caught COVID himself, and
due to his Administration’s interpretations of federalism and subsidiarity, handed off responsibilities to underprepared states and local levels of governance.
The Trump Administration also elevated Dr. Anthony Fauci to have an outsized role in shaping policy, while simultaneously denigrating the scientific establishment consensus that Dr. Fauci represented.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo also had some major missteps in his early response to COVID-19, such as his requirement that the state’s nursing homes take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 once they recovered. In reports of death tolls, the true number of deaths caused by this decision was obscured by Cuomo and his aides for at least five months. This nursing home disaster could have been avoided had there been greater knowledge of diseases among state leaders like Cuomo.
As a result of executive leadership failures, action against the pandemic was inadequate and uneven, the spread of misinformation and distrust proliferated, and millions of people suffered the consequences. In the future, there should be more:
executive-level training and coaching, and
a more process-oriented approach that helps people understand each level of the response process more clearly.
Local, state, and federal governments should prioritize hiring experts to train their employees in disaster preparedness to ease the process of disaster response and boost confidence and trust in leadership.
Accusations and Targeted Embargos
Before COVID-19 was declared an emergency in the U.S., one of the immediate responses to the worsening global crisis was a travel ban on China, barring entry into the U.S. for individuals recently in that country. Coupled with the anti-China rhetoric used by the president and others, this policy sparked racism against Asians and Asian-A