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The COVID-19 Blame Game

Blame only serves the general welfare when we learn from it.

Blaming others comes easily, especially if it reinforces your biases and advances your agenda. This is abundantly evident in the public response to the COVID-19 pandemic. President Trump blames China for not telling the world sooner about the highly contagious nature of this disease. The Chinese blame the U.S. Army for allegedly introducing the disease to China. Many blame the World Health Organization for helping China hide crucial information. Democrats blame Trump for not recognizing the problem soon enough. Trump blames Democrats and the media for “fake news” and their own original cavalier attitude about the disease. Some governors blame the federal government (and Trump personally) for not helping them enough. Federal public health officials blame these governors for not taking appropriate responsibility. A restive public angrily demonstrates against governors who have gone too far in restricting freedoms. A medically informed public blames government public health officials for forbidding the development of “herd immunity,” which could have been done by a “shut-down” focus on protecting only the elderly and medically vulnerable. The public is free to figure out who is really to blame, but we are besieged from all quarters with conflicting agendas and fruitless blame.

One issue that nobody seems to talk much about is the federalist nature of our government. The COVID pandemic highlights the conflicting benefits and liabilities of federalism. People who believe in socialism, or at least big central government, think if we had an all-powerful central government, like China, that would solve the problems in the states. Overwhelmed states like New York would not be expected to solve their local problem. If states did not have responsibilities, then we could all rely on D.C. nannies to take care of us. This is how China and Russia operate. How is that working out for them? China incredulously claims they have no problem anymore, that their wonderful government system fixed the problem (that they created). European countries with socialized medicine don’t seem to be doing any better in coping with COVID than our own country is doing.

The federalist notion is that states should have responsibilities and be empowered to deal with local issues. COVID-19 is a clear and present local issue, but it is not just local. If nothing else, when infected people travel from one state to another, they spread the disease. When states compete with each other for resources, they drive up the price of medical supplies and cause shortages in some states.

Thus, it would seem obvious to do what we are doing. The federal government can manage production and distribution of medical resources, which it more or less is doing. The federal government is creating a federal-state partnership in which it builds partnerships with private businesses to produce what is needed by all states. The alternative is for government to seize industry. Even China and Russia don’t do that. Those countries do rule businesses, whose enterprise is not really free. Most Americans do not want to nationalize industry.

So, how does all this relate to the blame game? Each of us can surely place blame somewhere. If we can avoid the current vindictive spirit, such blame can be useful for future policy. For example, the WHO needs a critical review of how it monitors and manages world health issues, particularly infectious disease. We can stop expecting the president, whether Trump or Biden, to be a god who can fix everything alone. We can stop placing responsibility only on the federal or state governments, when neither entity can deal with this alone. We can certainly change national policy to limit foreign supply-chain dependency of crucial materials that affect public health (and national security). We can build national stockpiles of medical supplies for unanticipated future emergencies. The state and national public health agencies can surely improve their internal operations. They could be more open to creative ideas, such as that of veterinarian Michael Kotlikoff, who advocates COVID testing on pooled samples from large numbers of people, and if the pooled sample is negative (perhaps twice for more caution) everybody in that pool can go back to work.

Bureaucracies like the NIH are often slow to accept new ideas; in some circles, “N.I.H.” stands for “Not Invented Here.” Research strategies for drug and vaccine development surely could use creative improvements. Maybe the NIH needs to re-prioritize research funding on the basis of national security implications. The public can stop spreading the disease by bad public health hygiene, which in fact we are now trying to do. But nobody should expect us to “social distance” forever. In fact, social distancing policies may only be postponing infections and the acquisition of a herd immunity that will eliminate the virus as it runs out of people to parasitize. Government, state and local, needs to work better. In short, blame only serves the general welfare when we learn from it.