Every Marine knows better than to pull a knife in a gunfight. But so far, that appears to be the federal government’s approach to battling COVID-19.
The US president has “invoked” the Defence Production Act, but the government has not used the full authority of the act. There is a difference between invoking a law and using it, just as there is a difference between talk and action.
This is an “all hands on deck” moment, not merely to flatten the curve but to leap ahead of the curve. America was once the arsenal of democracy; the DPA can help make us the arsenal of public health
Governors and health officials tell us that there is a profound gap between the protective equipment, hospital equipment and testing resources that are needed (and will be needed) and what is available (or in the pipeline).
Not a passing crisis
Bill Gates reminds us that we will need to produce millions, perhaps billions, of doses of vaccine in 12 to 18 months. This isn’t a passing crisis; we will need more of everything in two months, six months and maybe years.
Don’t let debate over the details of General Motors’ and Ventec’s honourable effort to build more ventilators hide the bottom line: The federal government has all the authority it needs to close the supply gap, allocate resources among states, and prepare for the production and distribution of the vaccine to come.
Until the federal government demonstrates — with statistics, contracts and timelines — that the gap is closed and the vaccine pipeline is ready, we should ask: Why the government bringing its full arsenal to the fight?
The DPA’s authorities go beyond prioritising contracts and manufacturing supplies. Its allocation authority addresses the problem of states’ competing against one another for scarce resources based on market mechanisms.
The federal government can allocate equipment and supplies based on actual need and best public-health practices. The DPA’s industry assessment authority can be used to measure production and distribution capacity, remove blind spots, plan efficiently and recreate a supply chain at home.
The federal government can determine now which entities could produce vaccines while it plans for their ethical allocation. The government can create a secure market for masks, tests and vaccines.
If a business feels the government is overreaching or unrealistic in its timelines, it can seek relief in court and do so on an emergency basis. Finally, the government reports annually on the DPA’s use: Not only will the Congress know how the act is used, the public will, too.
Here’s the big picture: In times of crisis, when lives are at stake, lawyers and policymakers are supposed to find solutions to problems — to get to yes with honour and within the law — and not to create obstacles.
State and local authorities are imploring the federal government to use the authority it has to secure our medical supply chain. So far, the administration appears to have responded like a parent doling out candy to a child: one piece at a time.
This is an “all hands on deck” moment, not merely to flatten the curve but to leap ahead of the curve. America was once the arsenal of democracy; the DPA can help make us the arsenal of public health.
If I were advising the president (or the secretaries with delegated authority), I would say this: Please, tell the public what the need is and how the need will be met today, next week and in the months to come.
What specifically has been contracted for, in how many units and on what timeline? Where there is a gap between need and supply, use the DPA to close it.
I’ve never heard of a commander who complained about having too many tanks or who asked for a few artillery shells and not one too many. It’s high time we fought the virus the American way: with everything we’ve got.
James E. Baker, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Security Policy and Law, is a former Marine infantry officer, legal adviser to the US National Security Council