For those confined at home because of the pandemic, life may not be much fun but it could be a lot worse. Each day brings us closer to a vaccine or more effective treatments but that’s small comfort when we don’t know when that will be. Meanwhile, while we wait and hope, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on how to be better prepared for the next pandemic which we are told to expect. These reflections should not include assigning blame. There isn’t time for that now. They’ll be time enough for blaming when the dying’s done, with apologies to Kenny Rogers.
Rather than focus on past mistakes, we need to concentrate our collective energies and imagination on the present and the future as we look for ways to stop this epidemic. Mistakes of the past are a sunk cost. We know the coronavirus originated in the wet markets of China just as two previous epidemics did. Exotic animals like bats are slaughtered there for food in close proximity to conventional food markets and common sense would dictate that they should be closed. Delay by Chinese authorities in taking early action and alerting the world to the growing epidemic caused the disease to spread globally. Blaming China at this point, however, while it might make us feel good, won’t do much to solve the problem or facilitate the cooperation we will need.
We should meanwhile be collecting lessons learned in order to be better prepared for the next crisis. One obvious lesson is that while globalism is here to stay, it carries obvious risks. Epidemics that originate anywhere in the world can spread everywhere. Nations must be truthful and candid in exchanging information to help prevent the spread. This is a problem in countries like the People’s Republic of China where the Communist Party rules supreme and controls information and the government’s number one priority is the good of the party, not the Chinese people. It is difficult for Americans to understand this because it is so different from how open things are in a democracy like ours. We tend to assume that all foreign leaders are rational actors and motivated by values similar to ours. That assumption brought us to the brink of war during the Cuban missile crisis.
President Donald Trump has described Xi Jinping as his friend. Mr. Xi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and other Communist leaders may at times be cordial with Mr. Trump when it suits them but if Mr. Trump thinks they are his friends, he is deluding himself. Xi is chairman of the Communist Party in China and the interests of the party trump any friendships. Beijing will always act in the best interests of the party. We must never again be reliant on China for vital materials including pharmaceuticals.
The second lesson to be learned is the price we paid for being unprepared for this pandemic when there were many predictions that we were at risk of a pandemic like this or an act of biological warfare. We have a long history of being unprepared including two world wars and 9/11. The time to prepare is before people start dying.
Thirdly, the federal government cannot solve every problem. Unlike some countries, we are a union of states. Clearly, the federal government must act when states need help and coordination or common strategies are necessary, but states have a responsibility to do the best they can to plan, budget and prepare for domestic emergencies. When they fail to do this, as some did, the federal government can be overwhelmed.
Finally, government at any level does not have all the answers. Ideas, innovations, inventions and cures that have won wars and conquered diseases have come largely from the private sector and often from individuals working alone or nearly alone on ideas that turn out to be solutions. We are in great need of such ideas and solutions and we need to encourage the many brilliant minds out there to come forward with them. As a naval officer commanding warships, I used to marvel at the vast amount of talent at every level on board our ships. When we had a problem with no apparent solution, I would encourage brainstorming, encouraging the crew to come up with ideas no matter how far-fetched they might seem. I’d get a lot of crazy ideas but every now and then someone would come up with an idea worth trying and sometimes they worked.
We need ideas now that may work and save lives. Governments need to create clearinghouses to process reasonable ideas deemed feasible. There’s a lot of undiscovered talent in America.
Let’s hear from them.