By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
The Covid Crisis Group (CCG), chaired, or as we say these days, “led,” by former 9/11 Executive Director Philip Zelikow, is launching their book, Lessons from a Covid War (LCW), tomorrow. I will, of course, buy the book and review it at some point in the near future, but in the meantime, the CCG has undertaken a PR blitz, and I thought a little prophylaxis would be in order.
The CCG is an assemblage of the great and the good. From LCW’s publisher, Hachette:
The Covid Crisis Group combines 35 deeply experienced practitioners and scholars who have worked on every aspect of the Covid war, in America and around the world. They have treated patients in emergency rooms, examined the virus on the lab bench, run public health systems and large agencies, studied infectious disease and epidemiology, developed products in industry, organized programs in nonprofits and government, and given voice to those who have suffered.
The goal of the [Covid Crisis Group] was to lay the groundwork for a National Covid Commission, thinking that the U.S. government would soon establish a formal commission to study the biggest global crisis of the twenty-first century. So far, it has not.
In the face of this faltering political momentum—a void where there should be an agenda for change [note lack of agency]—the group decided to speak out for the first time. On Tuesday, April 25, they will publish Lessons from the Covid War (PublicAffairs [a Hachette imprint]), the first book to distill the entire Covid story from ‘origins’ to ‘Warp Speed’ [and not onward to the Biden Administration?] With the U.S. ending its formal declaration of a public health emergency earlier this month, this investigative report reveals what just happened to us, and why. Plain-spoken and clear-sighted, Lessons from the Covid War cuts through the enormous jumble of information to make some sense of it all.
Well, perhaps. We’ll have to read LCW to find out. As for the PR blitz, here are some live streams: Live Streams: National Academy of Medicine (April 24, 11:45am–5:15pm ET); WaPo (April 25, 1:00 p.m. ET); The Commonwealth Club of California (April 26, 6:00–7:00p.m. PDT); University of Virginia (April 28, 11:00 am–12:00 pm); and Dartmouth (May 9, 4:30pm–6:00pm ET). A complete listing of events appears on the CCG site. Perhaps some kind readers have time to attend one or more of these meetings virtually, and report back.
In the meantime, chair or rather leader Zelikow seems to have taken point for the blitz. I will present extracts of the high points of his interview with STAT and his article in Time. I will then look briefly at the last Commission Zelikow led, the 9/11 commission, and conclude.
Here are what I regard as the high points of Zelikow’s interview with STAT, “Q&A: Chronicling the failures of the U.S. response to Covid.” The interviewer is Helen Branswell. A second interviewee is Carter Mecher, a former senior medical adviser in the Department of Veterans Affairs who served as director of medical preparedness policy in the George W. Bush administration. On the Biden Administration:
Your group expected there to be a 9/11-style commission set up to study the nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was never established. Do you understand why?
ZELIKOW: Not for sure but I have some sense. The Congress side of the story I do know a little bit about. And that was that the partisans in Congress already had their stories. And to put it in shorthand, the Republicans blame China and [former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony] Fauci, and the Democrats blamed [former President Donald] Trump.
But the big reason, the deeper reason is because the Biden administration decided it didn’t want a commission. There were some very senior officials who were supportive. I think the view that carried the day could be summarized as: more trouble than it’s worth. … What’s our political interest in this?
They didn’t really know what they wanted to do. They didn’t have an agenda in mind. They could not articulate even to themselves internally as to how the system should change.
Or perhaps they could not or did not articulate this to the CCG? Frankly, Zelikow seems more than a little credulous here.
Some of the problems it identifies don’t seem like they can be fixed. The disconnect between chronically under-funded public health operations and private health care delivery. The country’s data collection quagmire. Do you see reason for hope that there’s a commitment to try to learn from the mistakes of the Covid response?
ZELIKOW: It’s funny you have that reaction. I was talking with a member of our group last week and she said that she was re-reading the report, and she said she found that really encouraging and empowering. She said: “It’s impossible to read the report and not see all this stuff we could do.”
Let’s take the data problem, for instance. A lot of the data we need actually is already being collected. The private health care system actually has really first-class data systems that are proprietary data.
Yes, data is being collected. For billing purposes, because the purpose of our “health” “care” system is rental extraction, ideally with upcoding using that same data. Data that is actually useful for medical purposes has to be reverse engineered out of the data we have.
So what we propose, for example, is you create an intermediary that then pools all this data and then in turn helps provide inputs for a network that we think probably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should run.
I wouldn’t trust the CDC to run a toffee shop, nor would anybody who observed their performance in any detail.
How do you feel about the way the non-pharmaceutical interventions — things like school closures, masking, and social distance — were used?
MECHER: The whole purpose behind NPIs is to try to slow community transmission. And if you’re going to try to slow community transmission, what you want to do is identify those people who are infected and infectious, and you want to prevent them from infecting people who aren’t. And so the key is testing. And if you can’t test, and if you can’t distinguish between who’s infected, and who’s not infected, the only choice you have is to use a sledgehammer. You pretty much assume everyone is potentially infected.
Yes, you do. And?
We really were hamstrung at the very beginning in terms of how we could selectively implement the NPIs, and I think we didn’t really have much of a choice at that point. If you wanted to slow it down, you were now backed into a corner of really using the most blunt instruments.
First, it’s not at all clear to me why — in the midst of a ginormous pandemic — NPIs need to be “selectively applied.” Why is that a given? Treating masking immediately as a cultural norm would have saved a lot of trouble later. And real lockdowns immediately, instead of the half-assed and pissant lockdowns there’s been so much whinging about, would, as brain trust member GM has vociferously and correctly advocated, would have stopped transmission cold. (Although I’m too lazy to find the link, even Andy Slavitt admitted this; 30 days, I think it was. Maybe 60. And we would have saved a million lives!) Second, despite the fact that #CovidIsAirborne, there’s no mention of air quality-centric NPIs like, as I keep repeating, Corsi boxes, HEPA filters, HVAC, CO2 meters, outdoor air, or even Far UV. I’m a little shocked that these NPIs seem not to have come to consciousness of the CCG. Let’s hope the book is not so negligent.
And now for Zelikow’s article in Time, “How America Lost the COVID-19 War“. On competence:
The members of our group are angry. They are angry because they feel that good Americans, all over the country, were let down by ineffective institutions, a slow and uneven initial response, shoddy defenses, and inadequate leadership. We came away from many of our discussions consistently impressed with the ingenuity and dedication of people all over the country. That is why so many of us are so frustrated. Americans improvised to fight this war, usually doing the best they could. They had to struggle with systems that made success hard and failure easy.
I don’t want to be overly cranky about this, but one of the most prevalent ways that “good” Americans “improvised” came from the understanding that #CovidIsAirborne (including lots of collective work on how to wear masks properly). Nothing of these improvisations is mentioned by Zelikow here or in Stat. On scientific communication:
The COVID war shows how our wondrous scientific knowledge has run far, far ahead of the organized human ability to apply that knowledge in practice. If we want to avoid a repetition of the catastrophe of 2020-22, we cannot ignore that the COVID war revealed .
There is a common view that politics—a ‘Red response’ and a ‘Blue response’—were the main obstacle to protecting citizens, not competence and policy failures. It was more the other way around. Incompetence and policy failures, including the failure of federal executive leadership, produced bad outcomes, flying blind, and resorting to blunt instruments.
Those failures and tensions fed the toxic politics that further divided the country in a crisis rather than bringing it together. Poor communication aggravated the breakdown of public trust and confidence and undermined efforts to combat misinformation.
On, well, Trump:
The one great policy success, Operation Warp Speed, is not well understood. It didn’t score its main success in high science, in vaccine research and development. Pfizer’s R&D, for example, did not need or use Operation Warp Speed. A belated initiative improvised by career bureaucrats, outside experts, and administration gadflies, Operation Warp Speed was successful by managing biopharma acquisition like a national security enterprise, with advance purchase of promising vaccines and by managing manufacturing and distribution.
I rather think that OWS wasn’t so much “managed” “like a national security enterprise” as that, rather like the KGB in the last days of the USSR, the national security establishment was the only functional State organ remaining. (The CCG might wish to look into this.)
Confronting bad governance with fatalistic apathy would be un-American. And it dishonors the memory of what and who we have lost—and are still losing. There will be other pandemics and other crises, possibly sooner than we can imagine. At present, the U.S. is no better prepared for those crises than it was in early 2020. The public emergency may be over. Its causes remain.
“Public” in “public emergency” is doing a lot of work. If the baseline for Covid deaths remains where it is (we call this “living with Covid”), America’s political economy will have added another tranche of lethality to any already thick and sickening pile including deaths of despair. I think that’s bad, though opinions differ.
From Zelikow’s PR blitz, let’s take a very brief look at his work on the 9/11 Commission (and please keep any commentary on that topic closely focused on Zelikow’s role, or the moderators will whack you). From the Intercept in 2021, “9/11 and the Saudi Connection“:
[T]he possible Saudi connections had generated intense scrutiny from investigators at the 9/11 Commission and debate over the final conclusions. Staffers believed that they had found a close Saudi connection to the hijackers in San Diego, but Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission, and Dieter Snell, a top aide, had doubts and rewrote that section of the final report before it went to the printers, removing the most damning material against the Saudis, according to “The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Commission,” a 2008 book by Philip Shenon, who covered the commission for the New York Times.
So, in essence, Zelikow put a lid on the Saudi problem. I would sure hate to find out that Zelikow also “removed the most damning material” against, say, Pfizer, before the LCW manuscript went to press.
As I’ve said many times, “Democidal elites is a parsimonious explanation” for the Covid debacle (which, if you regard falling life expectancy as a policy goal, democidal elites would regard as a feature, not a bug). Zelikow and the CCG seem to inhabit a lovely, technocratic world where repairing failures in competence, communication, and governance are central to mission. However, it’s very hard to look at hospital administrators gleefully unmasking their institutions — cheered on by Brownnose Institute shills and goons — without concluding that malevolence is part of our world as well. If so, CCG is not, perhaps, as “clear-sighted” as Johns Hopkins says they are. It may be that LCW is the best we are going to get. But will it be good enough?
 “A light lunch will be served.” Presumably unmasked?
 Of course we lost the war. We don’t win wars. We’ve lost every war we fought since World War II, except maybe our invasions of Panama and Grenada, big whoop, and that includes metaphorical wars like our wars on poverty, drugs, and cancer. (Actually, that’s not quite fair. Trump’s CARES Act was certainly winning the war on poverty there for awhile, but the Democrats ended it. Naturally).