The Covid-19 crisis puts our institutions, resources, and resilience to the test. We face novel scientific problems and rapidly evolving needs. Innovative businesses and private foundations are vital to this effort.
Containing the outbreak requires more testing, coupled with efforts to trace the contacts of those infected. Caring for the sick will require more capacity, in the form of ventilators, hospital beds, and medical personnel. To slow the outbreak’s spread and buy time to expand these capacities, we have largely shut down entire industries; we need to provide economic support to the households and businesses that have been closed in the interest of public health. Corporations and private foundations are playing key roles in our response to these challenges.
In Seattle, at-home testing for Covid-19 is now a reality. The effort has been spearheaded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with logistical assistance from Amazon. It’s a remarkable effort, with key roles for institutions of all forms: foundations, corporations, public-health agencies, and academia. It builds on infrastructure from the Seattle Flu Study’s efforts (also funded by Gates) to enhance testing and tracing of seasonal influenza.
The Gates-led Seattle effort contrasts markedly with critical initial failures by the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration. As discussed by George Mason University’s Alex Tabarrok, the CDC and FDA stunted the rollout of testing through two unforced errors that compounded one another. First, the CDC attempted to develop its own test rather than adopting the World Health Organization’s already-existing test, because it was not FDA-approved, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The U.S.-developed test initially suffered from manufacturing and quality issues. Second, the FDA prevented state- and privately run labs from running their own tests. Remarkably, this included a prohibition on testing by Seattle’s Gates-funded initiative.
As the Covid-19 infection rate rises, our health system’s capacity will be strained. America’s 924,000 hospital beds, of which roughly only 100,000 are ICU beds, are likely to be overwhelmed by peak demand. New York City hospitals are already under severe strain. Our initial capacity of roughly 160,000 ventilators will be stretched thin and must be expanded, along with the supply of respiratory therapists and other trained personnel.
Innovative efforts to expand the production of ventilators are essential, and Ford, GM, and Tesla have turned their attentions to this task. These efforts can be accelerated through clear pricing and reductions in red tape. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good when a “serviceable” ventilator is far better than no ventilator.
As we wait for new production facilities to come online, the allocation of existing capacity is key. On this front, Elon Musk’s acquisition (from China) and delivery (to Los Angeles) of 1,000 ventilators should be celebrated, even if acquiring ventilators from abroad is a short-run substitute for new production. While supply-chain management is rarely glamorous, Governor Gavin Newsom of California was right to call this “a heroic effort.”
To cope with temporary shutdowns of major industries, many households and businesses will need substantial assistance. The bulk of this funding will necessarily come from Washington. Effective deployment of these resources, however, will require localized responses. In this context, a Who’s Who of New York City foundations has pooled together to “provide grants and loans to New York City-based social services and cultural organizations to support them in the COVID-19 pandemic.” Funds will be used to enhance infrastructure and financially support the smaller nonprofit providers of social services that operate on a borough-by-borough or even block-by-block basis.
Finally, life under lockdown is, in crucial respects, made possible by the logistical ingenuity of companies like Amazon, Uber, and Lyft; it is made tolerable by the streaming services of Netflix, Hulu, and others. Grocers have innovated rapidly to sustain inventories in response to unprecedented spikes in demand. Beyond distributing essentials, delivery services have extended lifelines to restaurants that might otherwise be forced entirely out of business by the shutdown.
Covid-19 confronts us with a unique set of public-health, economic, and household-level strains. We can be grateful to confront these challenges with the help of big businesses, private foundations, and entrepreneurial ingenuity, so that government need not go it alone.
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