COVID-19 is the greatest threat to the United States to materialize in over a century. To put it into perspective, World War II, which many consider to have been an existential threat, claimed an average of 9,000 American lives per month. With the death toll now over 150,000, the novel coronavirus has claimed an average of 30,000 American lives per month since the beginning of March. And, based on epidemiological models, an estimated 230,000 Americans will lose their lives to COVID-19 by the end of October—an 8-month death toll that is more than double the total number of Americans killed in all wars since World War II.
Despite reports of some people treating coronavirus in a nonchalant manner—congregating in large crowds indoors, refusing to wear a mask, and in some instances coughing and spitting on people that request they practice social distancing—the risk to human life is not lost on the majority of Americans. For the first time since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, horror, fear, and anxiety have begun to overwhelm the public, especially as children head back to school.
With new cases on the rise in over 40 states, Americans fear for their safety. In just the past month, Gallup found that the number of Americans who feel that the pandemic is getting “a lot worse” has increased five-fold. Nearly 7-in-10 people now believe that conditions will continue to deteriorate. Similarly, a survey of parents found that 71 percent are worried about sending their children back to school in the fall because of the risks involved.
While most crises don’t rise to the level of national security concern, when the safety and welfare of the entire nation is endangered by a lethal threat, the situation becomes a matter of national security and it should be treated as such.
Prior to the current administration, which has handled nearly every crisis it has faced with either denial or spin, our political leaders responded to grave threats with bold and forceful measures. It’s time to do the same with the coronavirus pandemic. This will entail adopting three broad actions that proved successful during past crises.
First, we need a strategy that is centered on a single guiding principle. In World War II, the primary purpose was defeat of the Axis powers. In the Cold War, it was containment of the Soviet Union. In the current crisis, the overarching principle must be zeroing out the coronavirus. This would involve more than just flattening the curve. It would require making sure the curve remains flat long enough to get the number of active cases nationwide down to a level that allows every individual with COVID-19 to be identified and isolated. This is no easy feat in our system of federalism, but without coordination there can be no success. Whatever it takes, the president needs to make sure that all 50 governors work in unison with the federal government to implement the strategy.
As with past national security strategies, in order for the COVID-19 strategy to be an effective roadmap, it must be a codified resource that officials at all levels can draw on to identify clear priorities, measurable benchmarks, and available tools. Most importantly, it needs to have a single, clear aim that the key elements of the strategy serve. Competing or conflicting objectives that do not directly work to reduce the spread of the virus, like fully re-opening K-12 schools and non-essential businesses, cannot be critical components of the plan.
Second, identifying the appropriate means for achieving national ends will require heeding the advice of experts. During World War II, chemists, physicists, and engineers were the key experts who developed atomic bombs that were used to end the war with Japan. During the Cold War, political scientists and economists provided guidance on deterrence and containment. In the post-9/11 era, specialists in violent extremism and radicalization were called upon to counter terrorism.
It’s not as if President Harry Truman was an authority on atomic energy, President Lyndon Johnson was an authority on nuclear deterrence, or President George W. Bush was an authority on counterterrorism. They did what all good leaders do. They deferred to the experts. When it comes to tactics, reducing the spread of COVID-19 will require similar deference to the specialists and scientists, who this time around are the medical doctors and epidemiologists who staff our public health agencies.
Third, in order for the president to lead us to safe harbor, he must first have his own Kennedy moment where he implores Americans to ask themselves what they can do for their country. To resist fascism in World War II, over 60 percent of men of fighting age joined the military while the number of women in the workforce doubled. Professional sports were scaled back and Hollywood expanded from entertainment to public education—all with little complaint. The present is not that different from the past: overcoming danger will require sacrifice.
It boggles the mind that some Americans—people who in the post-9/11 era have no problem standing in airport security lines for upwards of an hour, partially undressing on command—are suddenly refusing to wear a 2 oz. mask and keep 6 ft. of distance while in public. Yet, we hear countless stories of this happening. The president and all 50 governors must mobilize the entire nation into action, backed up by the threat of shame and sanction for those who wish to put selfish interest before national interest.
Wiping out the novel coronavirus in the United States will take months, if not more than a year, but the eradication of the 1918 influenza teaches us that striving for zero cases is not a futile strategic objective. The key will be developing an effective national response to COVID-19—and that begins with elevating the pandemic from public health emergency to national security crisis. A return to the American way of life as we knew it demands nothing less.
Image: A person is transported into the emergency room of the Elmhurst Hospital on April 22, 2020 in the Queens borough of New York City. Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images