Editorial: National pandemic commission will provide answers, save lives – Houston Chronicle

There’s much from this seemingly never-ending pandemic we never want to see again. Mobile morgues in El Paso. Postponed weddings. Virtual funerals. The squeaks of tennis shoes the only sound in all-but-empty basketball arenas. And people dying, as happened here in Texas, from treatable non-COVID ailments because no hospital had room to treat them.

Yet even as we try to get to the finish line and put the pandemic behind us, we not be so eager to leave it permanently in the past that we fail to also look back and learn. Nearly two years, in, we’ve lost 770,000 Americans and more than 5 million people globally.

Those numbers make the pandemic one of the most gruesome episodes in our modern history, and like the flu pandemic of 1918 and many other tragic developments, we owe ourselves and future generations a clear-eyed, direct look at what happened to cause the pandemic and why and how it spread so disastrously. We must understand failures and successes so we can better prepare for whatever might lie ahead.

Four U.S. senators – two Republicans and two Democrats – have proposed a 9/11-style national pandemic commission that would take an exhaustive look at the pandemic’s origins, our early response and messaging, and our preparedness for another pandemic nearly everyone expects will come sooner or later.

The bill’s sponsors are Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Roger Marshall of Kansas. The panel would have 10 members, five from each party, that would have broad investigative authority, including subpoena power. It would report its findings to Congress and the executive branch.

This bill deserves the support from both chambers in Congress and from both parties. Such bipartisanship in these fiercely divided times is by itself worth cheering, but the bill is badly needed, regardless of politics.

“You know, if a plane crashes, we want to understand why,” Marshall told NPR earlier this week. “As a physician, if a patient dies, that’s why we do an autopsy. We want to find out, what can we learn to help future people as well?”

A future virus could be deadlier, or impact children more severely. It could transmit differently. There are any number of frightening hypotheticals that we nonethless must look at closely—and that starts with a thorough analysis of our collective actions in this pandemic, Christine Crudo Blackburn, an associate professor of security studies at Sam Houston State, told us recently.

Blackburn edited the book “Preparing for Pandemics in the Modern World,” mostly written before the current pandemic. She said a pandemic commission could also provide a detailed examination of the virus’ disparate impact on communities of color, and on many of the nation’s rural areas. We’ve got to know how to protect workers in crowded plants, nursing home residents, children and other vulnerable populations.

Though the commission will be bipartisan, politics will be impossible to avoid entirely. President Trump and others in his administration actively and repeatedly minimized the ascendant virus and the threat it posed to our daily lives. The commission can’t shy away from that, but it also need not be punitive. Trump’s administration is also responsible for Operation Warp Speed, which got hundreds of millions of vaccine doses available within 15 months of the virus outbreak. A bipartisan commission should be capable of crediting what should be credited and criticizing things we need to handle better the next time.

Another benefit? An analysis of our public health messaging, which was muddled early on. We must figure out how to increase trust in our public health agencies, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The most important thing a pandemic commission would do is figure out how to modernize the CDC and restore public faith in the CDC,” Dr. Peter Hotez told us. In February 2020, the CDC told us the threat from COVID-19 was low, under pressure from the Trump administration. This commission would provide plans of action for early warning systems, effective communication tactics and other methods to ensure that we’ve got the best approach possible to quickly alert us to future threats.

And the commission can also find what’s worth celebrating about our pandemic response, and build on it. Despite the tepid – or outright hostile – rhetoric toward vaccines from many on the far right, 196 million Americans have so far made the effort to get fully vaccinated. That’s not enough, but there are millions of people in this country wanting to contribute to the public good and put others first.

And the COVID-19 vaccines didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. The groundwork for the vaccines, both on the research and production side, was years in the making, as Gerald Parker, director of the Pandemic & Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M’s Bush School, explained in our interview. The commission can elaborate on that success story and provide a blueprint for how to build on our increased vaccine capacity.

Texas’ congressional delegation should support the pandemic commission and for Congress to approve it. The country deserves transparency and a clear read on what happened, most of all because we can better protect our future by honestly and directly understanding our recent past.