This week the United States reached a grim milestone when the number of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic surpassed 2,977 — the number killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Now that a pandemic 9/11 has befallen our nation, we need to ask ourselves: Why does it always seem to take a tragedy to wake us up to danger?
Before this pandemic, we had many warning signs that our homeland was in peril: the 2002 SARS outbreak; the 2003 resurgence of H5N1 avian flu; the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak; the 2012 MERS outbreak; the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
Despite the warnings, we didn’t take the danger seriously enough — and were caught unprepared for COVID-19.
At least on 9/11, we had an excuse for being surprised.
Few could have expected that terrorists armed with box cutters would turn planes into missiles and use them to strike us here at home. The failure to anticipate 9/11 was, like Pearl Harbor, a failure of imagination.
But it required no imagination to foresee today’s coronavirus pandemic. In November 2005, following the SARS and avian flu outbreaks, I worked on a speech that President George W. Bush delivered outlining our national pandemic strategy. He warned: “Scientists and doctors cannot tell us where or when the next pandemic will strike, or how severe it will be, but most agree: At some point, we are likely to face another pandemic. … Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland and time to prepare.”
Yet here we are, almost 15 years later, caught unprepared by the pandemic we all knew was coming.
So how did we fail so badly?
Many are blaming the Trump administration’s slow initial response, but as with 9/11, the failures stretch back much further. In 2003 [remm.nlm.gov], the Strategic National Stockpile was created so that we would have ready supplies of respirators, masks, protective equipment, ventilators and hospital beds.
But the national stockpile was depleted in 2009 during the H1N1 outbreak and never fully replenished. “We didn’t receive funds to replace those masks [and] protective gear ... that we used for H1N1,” former stockpile director Greg Burel told CBS News, leaving hospitals scrambling today.
The story behind today’s ventilator shortage is even more infuriating.
The New York Times reports that in 2008, the Bush administration launched a project to stockpile ventilators for a pandemic, and in 2009 the Obama administration contracted with a California company to provide 40,000 of them.
But in 2014, the company withdrew from the contract without delivering a single ventilator.
So the government started over with a new contractor.
It took another five years for the Food and Drug Administration to sign off on a new ventilator design, and the government did not place an order for 10,000 ventilators until December 2019 — the month that the COVID-19 outbreak began. We lost more than a decade due to government incompetence.
Questions need answering: Why did our early warning systems fail, allowing the virus to enter our country and spread faster than our ability to contain it? W
hy didn’t the FDA have a system in place to rapidly develop and deploy testing capabilities, costing us six critical weeks during which the virus could have been contained?
Why didn’t we replenish our national stockpile?
And why did we allow the outsourcing of critical medical supply chains, leaving us without the domestic capability to rapidly produce personal protective equipment, testing swabs and ventilators?
When the pandemic finally passes, there undoubtedly will be a commission to examine these and other questions.
We will belatedly fix the holes in our system, just as we did after 9/11. But right now, the death toll continues to mount.
Because of a decade of failures, we are now in the midst of that inferno, waiting for the fire to burn itself out. And there is no excuse for it.
Follow Marc A. Thiessen on Twitter, @marcthiessen.