1. Testing. Testing. Testing.
I know, I’m a broken record. But this cannot be said often enough:
When it comes to managing an outbreak, testing is the foundation on which everything else rests.
And the ability to test widely and quickly is of maximum importance at the beginning, before the outbreak reaches critical mass.
The U.S. seems to be finally catching up to the rest of the world in terms of testing capability as a matter of raw numbers, but in terms of total testing capacity relative to the populace, we’re still far below where we need to be.
And that 12 week period between the revelation of outbreak in Wuhan and the arrival of COVID-19 in America is time we cannot get back.
Please understand that this lag period is the defining mistake in what is happening right now in America. Everything would be different—everything—if the government had rushed production of effective testing that could be processed on-site.
And please understand that what I’m talking about isn’t a moonshot. It’s the basic blocking and tackling of epidemiology.
See this section from the Atlantic’s big piece on what the COVID-19 endgame is going to look like:
As my colleagues Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer have reported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed and distributed a faulty test in February. Independent labs created alternatives, but were mired in bureaucracy from the FDA. In a crucial month when the American caseload shot into the tens of thousands, only hundreds of people were tested. That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.
The testing fiasco was the original sin of America’s pandemic failure, the single flaw that undermined every other countermeasure. If the country could have accurately tracked the spread of the virus, hospitals could have executed their pandemic plans, girding themselves by allocating treatment rooms, ordering extra supplies, tagging in personnel, or assigning specific facilities to deal with COVID-19 cases. None of that happened.
Let me read the key part to you again:
“I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan.
People have been saying that you can’t plan for a once-in-a-century pandemic—there is no playbook for that kind of disaster.
This is not true. There is literally a playbook for pandemics.
What you can’t plan for is the possibility of a government seeing the pandemic coming and refusing to follow basic protocols for managing the crisis.
The black swan here isn’t COVID-19.
I have found it very hard to get worked up over the various failings of the Democratic and Republican stimulus bills.
Politicians are playing politics with government money?
Legislators are trying to lard up a giant spending plan with items that have nothing to do with the task at hand?
Instead of passing a clean bill in a heartbeat, elected representatives engaged in brinksmanship that delayed relief?
But here is the real reason I don’t much care about the small failings of the bills, or the process. and am not interested in calculating the exact apportionment of blame: The big problem is that neither side’s proposals were big enough.
Not even close to big enough.
This is not a $2 trillion problem we are facing. It’s probably not even a $5 trillion problem. The entire American economy, more or less, needs to be backstopped because we cannot begin an economic recovery until the pandemic is in a place where it can be managed. And we are not yet close to that point.
So here’s the real problem with both the Democratic and Republican plans: We’re going to be back here doing this again, soon.
There is a weird fallacy in people’s thinking that sees the economic problems as being caused by the social-distancing and the lockdowns.
That is incorrect.
The underlying economic problem is the virus.
Any attempt to “fix” the economy before we’ve gotten control of the pandemic will fail. And it will fail not because of lockdown orders or social distancing, but because a free society cannot sustain a high-energy economic order with a pandemic raging in the background.
The point of the stimulus isn’t to stimulate the economy, but to act as a tourniquet that keeps families and businesses alive until we get the source of the traumatic injury under control.
And this tourniquet isn’t big enough.