25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

A Rush Back to 'Normal' Would Be the Blunder of the Century

Wired 28 Mar 2020 11:00

What advice would you give the president?

In dealing with crises that are truly serious, I don't think that it's ever right to think that there's a single silver bullet. I have no one magic piece of policy advice.

One needs to be candid in one's communication, so as to preserve policymakers' and their advisors' credibility. There will be moments when reassurance is required, but that reassurance will only be effective if credibility has been preserved.

There's also an old adage: Hope for the best, and plan for the worst, and that is very much right in times of crisis. Usually, it's a mistake to assume that places and areas where you haven't yet seen a problem are therefore OK. There's a rolling wave aspect, where problems surface in more and more places.

Also, in my experience, policymakers more frequently regret having acted too slowly, too tentatively than they regret having acted overly quickly and too decisively.

Playing against an adversary, as in a military crisis, that's not where my experience is. But when dealing with a financial crisis, an environmental crisis, or a pandemic crisis, when the adversary is in a sense nature, the errors are usually of being too slow and too tentative. Very frequently, the moment the crisis starts to let up, coincides with the first time policymakers make a projection that proves to be too optimistic

Until then, when policymakers are constantly behind the curve, making forecasts that are overwhelmed by events, things are unlikely to hit bottom.

What can we do to stave off the worst economic impact?

I think we need to be investing, in a way far beyond what we are, in developing an infrastructure for widespread testing, widespread contact tracing, and widespread separation of those who are sick and those who are most vulnerable. We need to be at a wartime mobilization level. Around testing, contact tracing, developing therapies, and being able to live with coronavirus.

People were appalled by Katrina, and the failure of preparation in basic infrastructure that it represented. The negligence and failure now dwarfs that.

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Could the US government be doing more to coordinate this?

While Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, [head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases] the people he represents, and all the people involved in emergency coordination in different places around the country are working with extraordinary dedication and skill, I have yet to detect the kind of national mobilization around preparing to manage this that is appropriate to the seriousness of the threat, or that has been put in motion in times of war.

We won World War II with our extraordinary capacity for mass production, our extraordinary capacity to mobilize bullets, airplanes, liberty ships, soldier uniforms, and extraordinary technologies like radar and the atomic bomb. Why the hell can't the United States of America, in weeks or months prepare itself for pervasive testing and pervasive contact tracing and pervasive availability of ventilators?

A ventilator is a lot simpler than an iPhone. Why can’t we have them by May 1 with a totally ample supply? The Chinese have built whole hospitals in 10 days. Why do we lack the basic public competence? It is going to be our success in testing and acting on the results on testing and mobilizing therapeutics and tracing contacts that is going to determine what this ultimately means for the economy much more than the provision of liquidity.

What does the coronavirus crisis mean for increasingly fractured US-China relations?

It should be the case that a common threat from nature—like that hypothetical invasion from Mars—should be what draws the United States and China closer together. So far it has been very much the opposite. I pray that will reverse.


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