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Drop the politics, fight virus with 'permanent preparedness'

THE threat of a coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak is not a point-in-time political exigency; it is one of what we know will be a series of episodic public health challenges. Responding to these challenges will take more than ad hoc political messaging and emergency funding. It will take professional competence and a continuing commitment of financial resources toward public health.

We can learn about both of these commitments - professional and financial - from how communities like mine in South Florida prepare for hurricane season. We keep supplies in our closets, we check weather forecasts regularly between June and November, and we know exactly what to do when winds and rain start blowing sideways.

In South Florida, we are always prepared to handle a hurricane because we have a robust professional hurricane response system in place, and because our political leaders are disciplined about it. They stick to the facts and allow the experts, for the most part, to be the communicators.

We can also access national resources and additional expertise through the Federal Emergency Management Agency via the Stafford Act of 1988, which created a system through which a presidential disaster declaration triggers financial and physical assistance.

We need to treat recurring public health challenges, like this particular coronavirus, with the same forethought and permanent preparation as we do natural disasters.

The good news is that we have world-class professionals available to us. Our political leaders should let them do their jobs.

The Trump administration stumbled out of the blocks responding to this threat. In a public health emergency, fear and misinformation can spread just as quickly as a virus. The president confused the public with his statements minimising the threat of coronavirus and his contradictions of the experts.

He also submitted a Budget proposal just weeks ago that would cut US$30 million from the funds for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and US$3 billion more from the National Institutes of Health.

If passed into law, these cuts would significantly compound this crisis. The White House should never have suggested such an inadequate budget amid the coronavirus outbreak.

President Trump also politicised this issue at a campaign rally, although he is not the only one to do so. Some of my fellow Democrats have done the same by pouncing on his remarks to win political points rather than treating this situation with the gravity and unity it deserves.

Now is not the time for political gamesmanship. The American people want politicians in Washington to stop bickering, tone down the talk, and pull together to save lives. We might have different opinions on the effectiveness of the coronavirus response so far, but ultimately, our views are not the ones that matter. The public health experts who are leading this response are the voices we need in this crisis.


Coordination and clear communication are critical to reassure the public. Our political leaders need verbal discipline, a respect for scientific findings, a commitment to transparency, and a coherent communication strategy during these times - or they will confuse and frighten the general public.

We must rely on our outstanding public health experts. I trust the Health and Human Services physician-scientists and public health leaders working on this issue, including Dr Anthony Fauci at National Institutes of Health (NIH) and both Dr Anne Schuchat and Dr Robert Redfield at CDC. The White House deputy Dr Debbie Birx is also a highly respected specialist who led our global response to HIV/AIDS in past administrations.

We also need to rebuild our public health infrastructure and ensure that it is fully funded. Dusting off emergency plans is not adequate.

We need to prepare for these inevitable virus outbreaks with long-term, predictable, and consistent funding for our exceptional public health agencies in the federal government - including the NIH, the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, and the other public health offices. We must bring together state and local health departments, the first responders to any crisis, and laboratories across the country to ensure their readiness.

An emergency supplemental funding bill is necessary now for the coronavirus, and Congress will get that done. Supplemental funding, however, should not be our go-to option every time we face a new public health emergency. We need permanent preparedness, a Stafford Act for public health.

This coronavirus may never be completely behind us. We must face the fact that these public health challenges will always be with us. We will continue to face unique viruses with strange names, and we must be ready for them. NYTIMES

  • The writer, a member of Congress from Florida, served as US Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1993 to 2001.