Crises have a way of separating the leaderlike wheat from the opportunistic chaff. Coronavirus is the crisis of our time, and the political winnowing is something to behold.
Example: The Trump administration spent this week distributing ventilators, standing up small-business loans, dispatching hospital ships, erecting alternate care facilities, explaining virus modeling, revamping regulations to keep truckers on the road, and plastering the airwaves with information about hygiene and social distancing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent this week setting up a new House committee to investigate Donald Trump.
Nothing separates the shallow from the serious faster than high-stakes moments. At the federal level, Americans are seeing the serious in the White House task force briefings that provide daily updates on the government’s actions. When this is all over, we will find that the federal response was far from perfect. But we’ll also see that once the executive branch grasped the enormity of the problem, it moved with soberness, speed and a spirit of cooperation.
Mr. Trump is at the head of this operation, and while his leadership style isn’t for everyone, he’s certainly leading. He addresses the virus in stark terms but also insists on optimism—something that’s important from leaders in tough times. While punching back at some critics, he’s also reached across the aisle. He embraced Democratic calls for more-stringent corporate rules in Congress’s relief bill. Asked about the $25 million Democrats slipped in for the Kennedy Center, he defended it: “I really believe that we’ve had a very good back and forth.” He’s rushed to the aid of blue-state governors, and has praised Democratic state leaders, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for their efforts.
And at least some of those Democratic state leaders are reciprocating, proving neither party has a monopoly on character. CNN’s Jake Tapper this week practically begged Mr. Newsom to recant his recent praise for the president, suggesting the Democrat had given it only out of fear that Mr. Trump would “punish” his state’s citizens. Mr. Newsom was having none of it. “The fact is, every time I’ve called the president he’s quickly gotten on the line,” he said. “There’s just too many Americans—40 million that live in this state—that deserve us to get together and get along.” Mr. Cuomo has taken the same approach, saying of president: “His team is on it. They’ve been responsive.” He added: “I want to say thank you.” This week he chided partisans: “Not now,” he said. “The virus doesn’t attack and kill red Americans or blue Americans—it attacks and kills all Americans.”
Contrast this with Mrs. Pelosi, who seems to view the pandemic as one big political opportunity. She held up last week’s relief bill for days, attempting to cram into it unrelated election and climate provisions. She used a Sunday CNN appearance to accuse Mr. Trump of killing Americans. This week she announced a new special House committee that will “examine all aspects of the federal response to the coronavirus” and will have subpoena power. This is yet the latest Democratic machinery for investigating Trump and ginning up scandals.
Or contrast the governors with the guy carping from his Delaware basement. Joe Biden might have used this moment to buttress his claims to be the more dignified candidate by throwing his support behind the federal effort and making clear he’d save his policy disputes for later. He instead spread the false claim that the president had called the virus a “hoax.” Mr. Biden has bashed Mr. Trump on testing and on the use of the Defense Production Act. He’s accused the president of “failing to prepare our nation” for a pandemic (never mind the Obama-Biden role in any such failure). He even blames Mr. Trump for soaring unemployment numbers.
Or contrast the governors who are leading with the one who is using today’s crisis as an audition to be Mr. Biden’s running mate. For every Mr. Cuomo there is a Gretchen Whitmer. The Michigan Democrat has spent weeks accusing the administration of failing to have a “national strategy,” and of “cuts to the CDC” that put us “behind the eight ball.” She’s insisted “we’re still not getting what we need from the federal government,” and even insinuated the administration was directing suppliers to withhold equipment to her state—a ludicrous suggestion.
Democratic partisans are playing a risky game here. Mr. Trump is currently clocking the best approval ratings of his presidency, and a late March Gallup poll found 60% of respondents approve of his virus response. Americans have traditionally looked dimly on those who undercut presidents and other elected leaders in time of crisis. Some on the left are making it easy to separate the politicians who are fighting for their people from the politicians who are fighting for their self-interest. That may come back to haunt them in November.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, social distancing is the best America can do to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. But if the U.S. truly mobilizes, it can soon deploy better weapons—advanced tests—that will allow the country to shift gradually to a protocol less disruptive and more effective than a lockdown.
Instead of ricocheting between an unsustainable shutdown and a dangerous, uncertain return to normalcy, the U.S. could mount a sustainable strategy with better tests and maintain a stable course for as long as it takes to develop a vaccine or cure. The country will once more be able to plan for the future, get back to work safely and avoid an economic depression. This will require massive investment to ramp up production and coordinate the construction of test centers. But the alternatives are even more costly.
Two types of testing will be essential. The first test, which relies on a technology known as the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, can detect the virus even before a person has symptoms. It is the best way to identify who is infected. The second test looks not for the virus but for the antibodies that the immune system produces to fight it. This test isn’t so effective during the early stages of an infection, but since antibodies remain even after the virus is gone, it reveals who has been infected in the past.
Together, these two tests will give policy makers the data to make smarter decisions about who needs to be isolated and where resources need to be deployed. Instead of firing blindly, this data will let the country target its efforts.
Here’s a simple illustration of how test data can save lives. Every day millions of health-care professionals go to work without knowing whether they are infectious and might spread the virus to their colleagues. We both have close relatives on the front lines. As soon as one of them developed a cough, she pulled herself out of service. But at that point she may have been infectious for several critical days. If she and her colleagues had all been tested every day, her infection would have been caught earlier and she would have isolated herself sooner.
To be used as a screening mechanism at the beginning of a shift, the test would need to be able to give a result within minutes. Developers are making progress on speeding up these PCR tests—so much so that the aforementioned physician received the results from her second test, conducted five days after the first, before those from the first test. Abbott and Roche, two pharmaceutical companies, are moving forward with tests that can decrease reporting times from days or hours to minutes. Now that the doctor has recovered, an antibody test could help determine when she can return to the frontlines of patient care.
As testing capacity expands, the same tests could be offered to all essential workers, such as police officers and emergency technicians, and then to other overlooked but critical workers—pharmacists, grocery clerks, sanitation staff. The next step would be to test people throughout the country at random to get up-to-date information about who is infected now and who has ever been infected.
For those who are currently infected, governments can provide immediate assistance to make sure they don’t infect anyone else, especially family members. Those infected before who now have antibodies may be less susceptible to reinfection. If that is proved in the weeks to come, they could also return to work.
Putting this system in place will take resources, creativity and hard work. Test developers will have to increase the production rate of kits by an order of magnitude. In his work fighting Ebola in West Africa, Dr. Shah saw how a virus can cause a 30% reduction in economic output. Mr. Romer’s back-of-the-envelope calculation is that the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic has already caused a 20% reduction in U.S. output, which means the country is losing about $350 billion in production each month. If a $100 billion investment in a crash program to make antibody and PCR tests ubiquitous brought a recovery one month sooner, it would more than pay for itself.
Building this testing system would be complicated and require the best of American science, business and philanthropy working together. But it is the type of challenge that the U.S. has overcome before. It isn’t viable to wait a year or two for a vaccine before getting people back to work safely. To save lives and prevent a depression, testing on a massive scale is essential.
Mr. Romer is a professor at New York University and a 2018 Nobel laureate in Economics. Dr. Shah is president of the Rockefeller Foundation and served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, 2010-15.
Hard to know what to include or comment on. There is a ton of learning going on in real time. mrossol
The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the limits of scientific modeling to predict the future. The most consequential coronavirus model, produced by a team at Imperial College London, tipped the British government, which had until then pursued a cautious strategy, into precipitate action, culminating in the lockdown under which we are all currently laboring. With the Imperial team talking in terms of 250,000 to 510,000 deaths in the U.K. and social media aflame with demands for something to be done, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had no other option.
But last week, a team from Oxford University put forward an alternative model of how the pandemic might play out, suggesting a much less frightening future and a speedy end to the current nightmare.
How should the government know who is right? It is quite possible that both teams are wrong. Academic studies often suffer from a lack of quality control, as peer review is usually brief and cursory. In normal times this doesn’t matter much, but it’s different when studies find their way into the policy world. In the current emergency, it is vital to check that the epidemiological models have been correctly assembled and that there are no inadvertent mistakes.
Several researchers have apparently asked to see Imperial’s calculations, but Prof. Neil Ferguson, the man leading the team, has said that the computer code is 13 years old and thousands of lines of it “undocumented,” making it hard for anyone to work with, let alone take it apart to identify potential errors. He has promised that it will be published in a week or so, but in the meantime reasonable people might wonder whether something made with 13year-old, undocumented computer code should be used to justify shutting down the economy. Meanwhile, the authors of the Oxford model have promised that their code will be published “as soon as possible.”
It isn’t only the U.K. that’s plagued by inscrutable models that describe very different futures. It’s a problem that governments around the world now face. Is there anything that can be done to make the predictions put in front of policy makers more reliable?
Peer review can’t bear reform, because there are simply too few people around with the expertise and time to do comprehensive reviews. It would be much simpler to require publicly funded academics to publish data and code as a matter of course; the possibility of competing teams checking their work might encourage development of the quality-control culture that seems lacking within the academy. It would also mean that in a crisis, when traditional academic peer review would move too slowly to be useful, a crowdsourced review process could take place.
In this way, the combined intellects of experts among the general public could be brought to bear on
Scary projections based on faulty data can put policy makers under pressure to adopt draconian measures.
the problem, rapidly identifying errors and challenging assumptions. This sort of crowdsourced review would provide the manpower to take apart the abstruse models that are all too common in many academic fields. The authors of the Imperial model have argued that they don’t have time to explain to people how to get their 13-year-old computer code running. But getting computer code running is usually a problem that can be solved in a day or two when you throw enough brain power at it.
Calculations aren’t the only problem. Only a few weeks into the pandemic, we don’t have enough data to feed into the models. In particular, information about how many people are infected but remain asymptomatic is highly tentative. This means that there are a huge number of mathematical models that might explain what has happened so far, each extrapolating a very different future. New data can change predictions considerably.
Take an example from astronomy. On March 12, 1998, media around the world announced that a mile-wide asteroid was on a possible collision course with Earth in 2028. Only a day later, the global asteroid scare was over as additional observational data showed it would miss by 600,000 miles. While the initial calculations weren’t inaccurate, they were based on limited data and weren’t properly scrutinized, which made the announcement premature. A short delay while new information was collated was all it took to show that there was no risk at all.
After this scare, the international astronomical community agreed on a robust warning system based on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, a tool for categorizing and communicating potential asteroid impact risks. Out of a scientific fiasco, a successful risk-communication tool was developed. It has since prevented many false alarms and taught the public to understand and live with the comparatively small risk of asteroid impacts. Covid-19 is no false alarm, but public health could benefit from a similar warning system, which would help governments and health officials communicate uncertainties and risks to the public.
When competing models are giving wildly different, and in some cases frightening, predictions, the pressure on governments to adopt a draconian approach can be overwhelming. But, as we are seeing, the costs of such measures are extraordinarily high. Nations cannot afford to lock down their economies every time a potentially devastating new virus emerges. Setting up an effective pandemic hazard scale would inform policy makers and the public, helping fend off media demands for “something to be done” until the right decisions can be made at the right time.
Messrs. Peiser and Montford are, respectively, director and deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum.
The disease can’t be that deadly if the ODE is taking this position, can it?
Oregon has cancelled public-school classes amid the pandemic, but political self-interest never sleeps. The Oregon Education Association and its labor allies are now blocking hundreds of children from continuing their education at virtual public charter schools.
As of Oct. 1, more than 14,000 children already attended Oregon’s 19 virtual public charters and received the bulk of their education remotely. But when brick-and-mortar schools closed on March 16 to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Oregon parents clamored to transfer their children to the online schools.
Monday was the first day at Oregon Connections Academy, the state’s largest virtual public charter, for seventh grader Natalie Ritter and her fifth-grade brother, Lincoln. Their mom, Stephanie Ritter, says the ability to transfer them was a godsend, though it was heart-wrenching to leave behind beloved teachers and classmates.
Ms. Ritter and her husband work full time and don’t have hours a day to teach their children at home. Attending school online “will help them not just learn but feel connected,” Ms. Ritter says. “Not having that as an option just means that we would have to put more faith in the Oregon schools figuring that out. And
I think they’re working on it, but we just don’t have the luxury to wait.”
Like Natalie and Lincoln, some 300 students successfully transferred in mid-March to Oregon Connections Academy alone, and the teacher’s unions were alarmed by this mass exodus from the public schools.
Under pressure from the unions, the Oregon Department of Education stopped allowing transfers on March 27. At Oregon Connections Academy, this means some 1,600 students who had sought to transfer won’t be able to, says Jeff Kropf, the school’s founder and president of the board of directors.
It could be worse. The state Department of Education originally contemplated closing down virtual public charters along with the brick-and-mortar schools, according to a March 24 PowerPoint presentation reviewed by the newspaper Willamette Week. Even during a national crisis, unions would rather deprive students of an education than see their charter-school competitors succeed.