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Like it or not, the government needs greater power to fight pandemics


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The Hill

David Blumenthal and James Morone


“The army is sickly with the smallpox,” fretted General George Washington in 1776. He wasn’t exaggerating when he called the contagion our “most dangerous enemy” — smallpox and other diseases accounted for 90 percent of his army’s deaths. Ultimately, Washington commanded the troops to get inoculated despite their fear of the procedure. 

Contagion is, once again, our most dangerous enemy. COVID-19 has killed more Americans than any war, right back to the Revolution. And, as Washington learned, pandemics threaten the United States as much as an enemy in the field. We normally reckon America’s competition with China, for example, by comparing military power and economic might. The rivalry may ultimately turn on how well each copes with the new world of global contagions. 


Fifty-six states and territories continue to approach health care in their own ways. Each balances public health, economic growth and individual freedom in its own way. But disease pays no attention to political boundaries. No state can manage the complications of global monitoring, testing protocols, and international supply chains. National coordination and leadership are critical — as we’re learning the hard way. 

Of course, Americans have always been skeptical of their central government. But the resistance generally melts during great national crises — like wars and economic depressions. The 21st century requires us to treat epidemics in the same way. But today, we’re moving in precisely the opposite direction. The constant barrage against “the deep state” takes a toll on health agencies, forcing officials to move cautiously and cover their butts. The governmental weakness is exacerbated by a populist challenge to scientists and public health officials. This too is a spirit that runs through American history. Today, politicians lead the charge (“don’t Fauci my Florida!”) and accelerate the spread of infection.


How, in short, do we mobilize the United States against pandemics — while honoring its fundamental values? 

Our lives are at stake. We will need to come together and change if we’re going to meet the looming dangers. And, like it or not, that will require a powerful role from national officials.   

David Blumenthal is president of the Commonwealth Fund. James Morone, Ph.D., is the John Hazen White Professor of Public Policy at Brown University. They are coauthors of “The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office.”


"Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop
Hey, what's that sound?
Everybody look - what's going down?"

Stephen Stills 1966

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