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How US pandemic preparedness can be a global insurance policy

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How US pandemic preparedness can be a global insurance policy

Next year, when the new Congress meets, there will be myriad competing priorities for the new representatives. One of these issues should be pandemic preparedness.

While COVID-19 may seem like a distant memory to some, the risks of natural or deliberate spread of disease are high with us – it’s not a question of if, but when the next pandemic hits. Unfortunately, the issue of pandemic preparedness has taken on a partisan bent, while minimizing the magnitude of the risk or the upside of the opportunity can be disastrous.

The risk of a pandemic disease is high with us. The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics early the Biden administration this week to declare an emergency over the spread of RSV amid rising flu cases. Monkeypox, although no longer in the news, remains a threat. In October there was polio again found it in New York City wastewater. All this takes place against the backdrop of rising flu cases and more hospital admissions.

It’s easy to lose focus after feeling like we’ve weathered the storm of COVID-19. A sense of ‘normal’ has returned to much of the country and the urgency of the threat has become much less. Certainly, our lives have changed irrevocably – the way we live, work, interact and more will never fully return to pre-pandemic normality. That loss of focus threatens to miss the aforementioned disease risks — any one of these can become a major challenge, not to mention the unknown unknowns, and several of them occurring at the same time could put significant strain on our weakened health system.

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Focusing solely on COVID-19 or “preparedness” misses the other half of the equation: the opportunity. Congress should not view pandemic preparedness as a cost or an “in case of emergency” protocol. It should see preparedness as a global insurance policy that will bring benefits in the short term and especially in the event of a future pandemic.

By reinvesting and restructuring the strategic national stockpile based on the learnings of COVID-19, we will be better prepared to distribute much-needed personal protective equipment and other materials that were rapidly utilized during the pandemic. Pandemic foreclosure financing, just as families do for car, home or health insurance, will be constantly reinvested and available resources in the event of a crisis. Establishing and stress-testing public-private partnerships will ensure that when the next round of vaccines or drugs is needed, we are not starting from scratch. By building peak capacity in hospitals, we are better prepared for a wide range of crises, including disease outbreaks.

We need to capitalize on both the human side and the asset side of this insurance policy. We need to build cadres of people ready to respond in their communities when an outbreak occurs. We need to reinvest in our healthcare workers – the doctors, nurses and other health professionals – on whom we rely heavily during a crisis. We also need to look at the next generation of medical-tech professionals.

While all these arguments have been put forward before and endlessly agreed upon, little action has been taken. We need to formulate the debate in a different way than just those critical and sensible measures. We should view that pandemic preparedness insurance policy as a global competitive advantage in this era of strategic competition.

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There is value in preparedness as a deterrent. Human-caused pandemics — whether of terrorist origin or originating from a nation-state — are just as real as those emanating from the natural world. By building preparedness insurance – and publicly – there is an added benefit of undermining the attractiveness of a potential attack. If the adversary knows we are resilient and prepared, but their own people are far from being in such a comfortable position, they may think twice before acting.

China is undergoing a radical series of lockdowns and isolations, all in pursuit of the unrealistic “zero Covid” policy. While Beijing is making changesthe economic impact of this program is devastating for China’s growth. While there is no indication that the next pandemic will provoke a similar response, viewing pandemic preparedness through this lens is invaluable in reshaping our own approach. Instead of thinking of it as a sunk cost, we should see it as a competitive advantage. The strength and resilience we buy in an emergency ensures that we invest today and are prepared for tomorrow. If our country is more resistant to a disease outbreak than China, our economy will perform better and our safety will be better guaranteed.

It also means we can better assist our allies, partners and those on the fence. If the United States were in a better position to respond to the needs of the Middle East, Africa, Latin and South America, as well as Europe during COVID-19, how much goodwill would that have bought in the short and long term? We argue that ensuring the support of the democratic order through medical diplomacy is worth the cost of pandemic preparedness, especially in the long game of competition with China.

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The next Congress represents an important opportunity to revolutionize the way we approach pandemic preparedness. Their to-do list will no doubt be long and economic pressures will mount, but the cost of inactivity and missed opportunities will far outweigh the cost of investing smartly in an insurance policy at home and gaining a competitive advantage abroad.

Glenn Nye is the president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress (CSPC). Dan Mahaffee is the senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, where he directs the Geotech program.

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