As the 2020 coronavirus pandemic unfolds, many Americans have asked why the government didn’t seem to have a plan for this crisis—a crisis that was both predictable and predicted. Almost no one remembers that six months before the current outbreak, Congress passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2019, which offered funds and planning authority for just such a crisis. It was the latest in a series of at least a half-dozen similar acts passed over the last two decades.
The problem isn’t that the U.S. government lacked a plan for an international pandemic. It’s that the government had dozens of such plans, totaling thousands of pages, issued by different agencies and different presidential administrations, with little thought to how they would be combined or who would implement them. To meet the next crisis more effectively, we need to get over our obsession with “planning.” Each crisis brings its own challenges, and we must meet those challenges accordingly.
After the 2005 avian influenza scare, for example, Congress did what it does best: demand that someone else come up with a plan. The White House soon issued a National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, followed the next year by the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan. These proposals in turn birthed numerous individual department blueprints, such as the Department of Defense Implementation Plan for Pandemic Influenza. Congress also mandated that states create their own Pandemic Preparedness Plans.
One might think that all these initiatives would provide the basis for the American pandemic response. Yet they are swamped by countless others. After 9/11, the government also began writing National Response Frameworks on how to deal with any national emergency, including a biological crisis. These frameworks in turn led to Biological Incident Annexes. The most recent such version claims that it “serves as the Federal organizing framework for responding and recovering from a range of biological threats.” What function the other plans now serve is unclear.
To confuse things further, the Department of Health and Human Services, apparently on its own initiative, wrote a Pandemic Influenza Plan in 2005, and it issued new versions in 2009 and in 2017, with no discussion of how these related to the earlier documents mandated by Congress. HHS also created a separate National Health Security Strategy for the United States in 2009, with updates in 2015 and 2019, to supplement the White House’s National Security Strategies, which also deal with biological crises.
But make no mistake: these plans are separate from the United States Health Security National Action Plan, along with the North American Plan for Animal and Pandemic Influenza, which HHS issued in response to World Health Organization mandates. Why the earlier plans did not satisfy these mandates is unknown.
Also getting into the act, the National Security Council has issued plans on how to respond to outbreaks. And, in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, Congress, seemingly forgetting its earlier decrees, also mandated that the White House write a National Biodefense Strategy, which refers to none of the previous plans.
All these contradictory plans have consequences. When Politico noted that the Trump administration was not following the National Security Council’s Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Infectious Disease, which I haven’t even mentioned, the administration responded that they weren’t working with that plan anymore, but with a combination of the Biological Incident Annex to the National Response Framework, the Biodefense Strategy, and something called the Pandemic Crisis Action Plan (or PanCAP), the existence of which, outside of this discussion, I have not been able to confirm.
So many plans only ensure that there is no clear plan—and no accountability. What the federal government needs is nimbleness in responding to new scenarios and clear lines of authority in implementing actions. Thus, the one thing that Congress should not do in response to Covid-19 is to mandate yet more plans for future pandemics.