Comprehensive review of how U.S. handled pandemic lays out lessons learned

Why the United States fared so badly during the pandemic, especially when compared to other similar nations, was supposed to be one of the many questions examined by a national COVID-19 commission. But that commission was never launched. William Brangham spoke with the co-author of a new report that hopes to start that reckoning.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    Why the U.S. fared so badly during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when compared to similar nations, was supposed to be one of the many questions examined by a national COVID-19 commission. But that commission was never launched.

    William Brangham talks with the co-author of a new report out today that hopes to start that reckoning.

  • William Brangham:

    There are still so many questions about America's response to COVID. Could the U.S. have better contained the virus in the very early days? Did so many schools and businesses have to close for so long? Why was America's death toll so high?

    This new investigative report from a consortium of public health and scientific experts does credit the fast development of the lifesaving vaccines, but it also points to many tragic failures.

    One example, it notes that, if the U.S.' death rate was similar to other European nations, in the first two years of the outbreak, and estimated half-a-million Americans wouldn't have died during that period. The report is titled "Lessons From the COVID War: An Investigative Report."

    Philip Zelikow was one of the leads on that. He's currently a professor of history at the University of Virginia, and he was executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

    Phil Zelikow, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Philip Zelikow, Co-Author, "Lessons From the COVID War": Thanks.

  • William Brangham:

    Near the top of your report, you write that this was a war that the U.S. fought without an army and without a battle plan.

    How is that possible that we did that?

  • Philip Zelikow:

    We pass programs. We appropriate money. You have science and money, but you don't have preparedness.

    I mean, suppose someone comes into the emergency room, and they're gasping for air, and you don't know what to do. And then someone hands you an emergency medicine textbook. No, no. And someone says, well, here, here's $10,000 if you will save this person's life.

    What you really want is, like, well, tell me what to do. And train me to do it, and give me the tools I need to do it.

  • William Brangham:

    And let's hopefully have spent that money to buy those supplies earlier.

  • Philip Zelikow:


    If you're not really ready at that moment, bad things are going to happen in that emergency. Well, we had a national emergency, and we weren't prepared. A lot of countries were prepared more than we were. A lot of countries are organized for emergencies differently than we are.

    And what was striking to us is, we're the country that prided ourselves on, we're the practical problem solvers. We know how to get things done, Berlin airlifts, Marshall Plan, D-Day.

    And then here we are once again finding kind of a collective national incompetence at practical problem-solving. And so that's why we wrote this report, because we think, if people will understand what really happened, from origins to Warp Speed, from warning to medical countermeasures, they will actually see that this is fixable.

    It doesn't have to be like this. There's all kinds of low-hanging fruit about ways we could be better prepared and rebuild trust in government, instead of losing it.

  • William Brangham:

    Could you tick through some of the particulars? Are there — are there specific things that you would point to, like about testing or data gathering, that you think were real problems for us?

  • Philip Zelikow:

    Well, we were flying blind all through the pandemic.

    Even though we have magnificent electronic health records and hospitals and health care systems, which don't share these records, even with each other in a given city for proprietary reasons and regulatory reasons that are highly fixable, actually, we flew blind unnecessarily.

    China has more gene sequencers at the low go level than we do. Take the example of testing. Testing is a really interesting case. Everybody's heard the story that maybe that CDC botched the test. We didn't have enough tests. They weren't produced at scale.

    But suppose we'd had enough tests. Suppose we'd had 10 million tests in warehouses. We had no strategy for how to use the tests. Do you use the tests for biomedical surveillance? Do you use them to open up 10,000 drive-through centers so anxious citizens can find out if they're sick? Do you use them for point of care testing in nursing homes? Do you use them to help you reopen schools and make workers feel safe?

    Well, then, for every one of those things, you actually then, OK, how many tests does that need, used in what way, coordinated with the FDA to get the clearances, coordinated with the financing. Then you see, even if 10 million tests are in the warehouse, if you don't have a strategy for what to do with those tests, you're going to fail again.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me put former President Trump's role in all of this.

    One of your co-authors referred to him as a — quote — "comorbidity" in this crisis. How do you see the former president's role?

  • Philip Zelikow:

    Well, a comorbidity is a condition that increases the risk of death or illness. And Trump's executive leadership made things worse. There is no denying that.

    But a key point of our report is, this is not another book all about the back-and-forth and shouting of the Trump administration, because the core problems went much deeper. We went into a 21st century pandemic with a health system fundamentally designed in the 19th century.

    There is no national public health agency in America, not really. We have hundreds of different state and local entities that are designed for a different era, for different kinds of problems. In all sorts of ways, we were just not really ready, no matter who was the president.

  • William Brangham:

    Your report really documents this terrible culture clash that we went through as a nation, which was this, to us the sort of gross terms, the science — trust the science, follow the science, versus the libertarian, open everything up, get schools, prioritize the economics of it all.

    You argue that culture clash didn't have to occur, that it was largely the result of poor leadership that led us to that schism. Explain.

  • Philip Zelikow:

    That's a great point.

    The — a lot of people think that, gee, everything was so partisan and polarized, that that's why we failed. In fact, we show mainly the story is just the opposite. It's because folks didn't know what to do, because there was kind of a — I mean, even the public health authorities thought they were just going to be closing things for a few weeks.

    And they had no plan for what to do after that. Because folks didn't know what to do, because there was this void, then all the toxic politics flows in. That's what invited and then aggravated the polarization, because then you then have people on each side with their statements of faith.

    Follow the science wasn't really a guide to what to do. What you need are practical toolkits to reopen schools and make people safe. We closed schools much longer than most other countries in the world, because we never developed the practical toolkits to reopen them, which should have been available probably by the fall of 2020.

  • William Brangham:

    This book is full of so many lessons, as you say, that we could implement, low-hanging fruit, as you describe them.

    Do you think that there is any real appetite to do those things, to fix those things? Because it does seem, as you document here, that neither political party seems interested in doing that.

  • Philip Zelikow:

    You know, one of our members was telling me that she really found reading the book, rereading it, empowering, because you go into this, you feel this is dismal and hopeless, there's nothing we can do.

    And you begin to get into a fatalistic mind-set. Well, let's just put this behind us, as if this was a bad storm. When you read the book, it's kind of empowering because you see, ah, there all these things we can do. I think the reason we're not doing those things is because no one has really done this analysis.

    No one has really shown the way, it's doable, here's what we can do, and developed an agenda. There is no movement to do anything to make our health system stronger coming out of the pandemic. That's not because people don't care about it. I think it's because they don't really know what the public agenda should be and what to do.

    And it's into that void that we wrote this report with this tremendous group of people who joined me in doing this work.

  • William Brangham:

    The report is called "Lessons From the COVID War: An Investigative Report."

    Philip Zelikow, great to have you. Thank you.

  • Philip Zelikow:

    Thank you.

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