Bunker Hill Monument

But we can be ready for the next one

A couple of years ago, my wife and I were cutting through Mass General Hospital on foot and wandered off the beaten track into a sort of museum—consisting largely of some old photos hung up in a hallway. One photo showed big tents for legions of patients set up on the former lawn of the huge health complex during the Spanish Flu pandemic of a century past. And I remarked to my wife that I didn’t believe our health system would be ready when we had another global outbreak of an infectious disease. Something we were both well aware was a virtual certainty in our lifetimes, according to epidemiologists.

And now we are all experiencing that pandemic. The event which people like President Trump have had the temerity to suggest wasn’t predicted when it definitely was. By a louder and louder chorus of researchers and disaster preparedness experts in recent decades.

Yet Massachusetts—a state famed for its wealth, its world-class hospitals, its biomedical industry, and its research institutes— has been caught as flat-footed as a federal government led by science skeptics was.

Our leaders in state government, business, education, and the nonprofit sector were unable to contain the first coronavirus outbreaks in the Commonwealth. Our irrational health system—divided as it is between dozens of nonprofit, for-profit, and government entities—was incapable of mounting a coordinated response. Deployment of already-existing coronavirus tests to the first wave of suspected infected patients was slow and badly bungled. 

Health care networks run on a cost-cutting for-profit corporate model irrespective of their actual funding mechanisms failed to a one to have pandemic response plans in place—and simply did not have sufficient supplies or personnel on hand to cope with the mounting crisis. Personal protective equipment for front-line medical staff was quickly used up as coronavirus casualties filled ICUs in March. Critical medical equipment like ventilators was not available in anything like sufficient quantities. Even common drugs and cleaning supplies became scarce fast. And doctors, nurses, midlevels, and administrative staff started getting sick in alarming numbers. With no easy way to replace the talent swiftly being sidelined or worse.

State government, for its part, hobbled for decades by ill-considered policy preventing proper progressive taxation of the rich and corporations is in no shape to make up for the disaster that is market-based medicine. Presided over by Gov. Charlie Baker—who played a major role as a leader of the right-wing Pioneer Institute in pushing to dismantle government programs that could have helped us now. A Republican politician rational enough to know that he now has no choice but to pursue big government interventions of the type his younger self would have balked at… if the Bay State has any hope of emerging from the pandemic in any kind of decent economic, political, social, and cultural shape. But irrational enough to hold back on mandating stricter and more effective stay at home and social distancing measures—even when over a thousand local doctors have signed a petition telling him that it’s vitally important to do that immediately.

Despite all these strikes against us, and with what Baker himself just called the peak weeks of what is probably only the first wave of the pandemic still in front of us, Massachusetts has still done a better job of trying to deal with the coronavirus crisis than many other states. But we’re hardly out of the woods, and we could still see our hospitals collapse in the months to come if we aren’t able to help our repair our broken medical system while running beyond full speed—and figure out ways to help the hundreds of thousands of working Mass residents who have already lost their jobs in the last couple of weeks (and the hundreds of thousands more who may follow them over the next year and a half) to stay properly housed, fed, and healthy. Ultimately getting everyone back to work, school, and a close approximation of normal life when the dust finally clears after researchers develop coronavirus treatments and a vaccine.

How we’re going to do all that with still-limited federal support, I do not know. No crystal balls here. But once we’ve muddled through, I will stand with those who are going to work diligently to ensure that this state and this nation are never caught unprepared by a new virus again. And will encourage people to elect leaders who are going to join us in fighting for the kind of national health system and related state level programs that will defend us from the pandemics to come.

A properly prepared health and research apparatus can ensure that all but the most virulent plague-like nightmare viruses never run out of control the way COVID-19 was allowed to.

We have the talent. We have the technology. All we lack is the political will. Here’s hoping that this crisis is enough to give that to us. And help us build a better, more democratic society in the bargain.

Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact pdp@binjonline.org for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.