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What lessons have we learned from the COVID pandemic?

People wait in line at a walk-up vaccination site in Washington, D.C., in November 2021.
Jim Watson
/
AFP via Getty Images
People wait in line at a walk-up vaccination site in Washington, D.C., in November 2021.

The United States is moving on from COVID-19. Well, at least the federal government is.

President Biden signed a resolution to end the national emergency to respond to the pandemic. In May, the White House also plans to disband its COVID response team.

More than three years into this pandemic, the federal government never created an official commission to investigate, something regularly done after national emergencies. Efforts to create it stalled in Congress.

The nonpartisan Covid Crisis Group took matters into its own hands. On Tuesday, it released its investigative report, titled "Lessons from the Covid War: An Investigative Report."

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly spoke to the head of the group, Philip Zelikow, about the report's findings. He is also the former executive director of the 9-11 Commission.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On the findings from the "Lessons from the Covid War" report

The key to this crisis and the key to what went wrong was we weren't really ready to meet an emergency. We had the best science. We were willing to spend the most money. That wasn't the problem. The problem was in knowing what to do and being ready to do it. I think the reason we wrote the report was so that people would actually have a better idea of what you really need to do in an emergency like this. And I think anyone reading this report will just say to themselves, "Oh, I think I understand this now. I think I understand why things went so wrong in all these different ways." And also, they'll notice a lot of things that went right, a lot of improvisations that began to work. And then we want to hold those lessons and not lose them.

On the central questions they were trying to answer

Instead of going back afterwards and trying to do a hindsight analysis of the statistics and correlations, we instead went into this asking ourselves, "Why did people make the choices they made? What information was available to them when they made these choices? What tools did they think they had to choose from? What institutions ... or capabilities did they have or not have?"

After the initial lockdowns — which actually folks at the time thought would only last for a few weeks — people really didn't know what to do. ... With no tools, flying blind, we had to rely on all these blunt instruments, which then polarized the country.

On developing a vaccine and Operation Warp Speed

It was a success. Actually, President Trump himself had almost nothing to do with it. I think we have the best account of the origins of Warp Speed that's available in print right now. And we kind of explain what it is about it that actually worked, and also what about it really didn't work.

A lot of people think of it, for instance, as a research and development program. Mostly it wasn't. Pfizer actually refused to participate in Warp Speed in developing its vaccine. It was, above all, a manufacturing and distribution program. And Pfizer, in fact, did participate in that part of it, and that's where it achieved its great successes.

If politics were at play in creating the vaccine

Well, politics are always in play when you're developing health decisions for hundreds of millions of people. And politics were in play here, too.

Actually, the remarkable thing about Warp Speed was that it was relatively insulated from the cronyism and chaos that characterized so much of the Trump administration. It was insulated partly because a lot of it was lodged in the Department of Defense. And both the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs helped to insulate the program from political interference. And actually, we give some credit to the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who helped to insulate the program's management from some of his colleagues in the administration who would have interfered more with it.

What lessons did you learn from the messaging around the vaccine?

Well, the communication was terrible, if I may be blunt. The good news is that we have actually learned a lot about how to do good communication with people in a crisis. The bad news is we disregarded practically all of that knowledge and those lessons in this crisis.

The persuasive efforts that worked — and people did some of this — is where you actually reached out to leaders in local communities. ... Some of those efforts worked quite well in persuading people to use the vaccine. But in general, at a national level, the communication efforts were poor. And actually those problems extended on into the Biden administration as well.

What is the teachable moment for the next virus?

I mean, this is really a crisis of competence. It's not a crisis of science. It's not a crisis of unwillingness to spend money. It's not a crisis in the sense that, "Gosh, no one had ever heard of a pandemic danger." There were great movies and books about it, so people knew about the danger. They had science. They were willing to spend money. The failure was in knowing what to do and how to do it and then getting ready to do it.

It's like an emergency doctor who has an emergency in front of them on the gurney and is given a textbook and a bunch of money. But that doesn't tell them, "Yeah, but I need to punch a hole in this person's chest to relieve the pressure on their heart. And how do I do that and have the training and confidence to do that in a crisis?" And this book really is kind of a revelation about, how do we restore a reputation for competence and problem solving?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.