Issue Four: Blinking Red

4.4.20 | Why we need a Covid Commission


Disasters are problems of knowledge. Signals of impending danger are missed, misinterpreted, or ignored. Actions lead to unintended and unforeseen consequences. Technical systems misfire in ways that are difficult to perceive or understand. Periods of disaster themselves are moments of vu-jàdé, in which everything is unfamiliar and nothing works. John Berger put it better, in describing Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights:

“There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past, and no future. There is only the clamour of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium.”

After the moment of disaster subsides, we make memories and build memorials. Often there is an accounting of how our foresight failed us, and why. That’s what this issue is about: sorting through first drafts of the account of how the U.S. failed to contain the novel coronavirus, and why we absolutely need a formal commission to make sense of these failures after the pandemic subsides.

In this issue:

  1. Link roundup.

  2. “The system was blinking red”: The need for a Covid Commission.

// Link Roundup

  • The confusion around mask wearing has infuriated people, understandably. After recommending against it, the CDC now does recommend that people wear cloth face coverings in public where social distancing is difficult to maintain. Their official guidance page includes this surprisingly helpful video from Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams on how to improvise your own mask:

[Daniel Castellano / AFP / Getty]

// The System Was Blinking Red

For weeks there was growing concern within the government. Surveillance networks were picking up disturbing signals, but it was hard to connect the dots and get a full picture of exactly when, where, and how the threat would materialize on U.S. soil. Intelligence officials tried to direct the President’s attention to the threat, but didn’t gain traction until it was too late. After the moment of disaster, it becomes clear that the federal bureaucracy had known, in disjointed fragments, almost everything it should have needed to know to avoid the catastrophe. But fragmentary knowledge in a big, complex bureaucracy is a lot like having no knowledge at all.

There has been a flurry of recent reporting on the signals this administration missed before the pandemic hit and in the early weeks of the response. One piece begins: “U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February about the global danger posed by the coronavirus while President Trump and lawmakers played down the threat and failed to take action that might have slowed the spread of the pathogen, according to U.S. officials familiar with spy agency reporting.” The story quotes an anonymous government official who had seen the intelligence materials. The President, this source said, “‘may not have been expecting this, but a lot of other people in the government were — they just couldn’t get him to do anything about it. … The system was blinking red.’”

That last phrase caught my eye, because it’s a direct—and almost certainly deliberate—echo from the 9/11 Commission Report. Throughout the summer of 2001, there were increasingly dire warnings within the intelligence community that a major event was coming:

“[C.I.A. Director George] Tenet told us that in his world ‘the system was blinking red.’ By late July, Tenet said, it could not ‘get any worse.’ Not everyone was convinced. Some asked whether all these threats might just be deception. On June 30, the SEIB contained an article titled ‘Bin Ladin Threats Are Real.’ Yet Hadley told Tenet in July that Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz questioned the reporting. Perhaps Bin Ladin was trying to study U.S. reactions. Tenet replied that he had already addressed the Defense Department’s questions on this point; the reporting was convincing. To give a sense of his anxiety at the time, one senior official in the Counterterrorist Center told us that he and a colleague were considering resigning in order to go public with their concerns.”

The 9/11 Commission was a national sense-making exercise. And an important one, for the public and policymakers alike. Its final report was both influential in government, and a national bestseller that was a finalist for a National Book Award. The point of the report wasn’t to assign blame, it was to understand what systematically went wrong and issue recommendations on how to reorganize the federal bureaucracy to keep it from happening again.

It would be a mistake to focus too much on failures that were idiosyncratic to this administration. Individual human error is almost never responsible for major disasters. This pandemic has highlighted systematic flaws in the way the U.S. prepares for and responds to infectious disease outbreaks that are absolutely critical to fix while we have the chance. Future pandemics are no less inevitable than future earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires.

Writing in the Washington Post Scott Deitchman and Craig Fugate (legendary figures in emergency management) make the case for a commission:

Such a report must not be limited to assessing when officials knew, or should have known, about covid-19 and its likely scope. These are intelligence issues, and although they are important, there is far more to understand. In national security, it is not enough to know that an attack is coming. Intelligence about an imminent attack is best utilized by a nation with appropriate resources to respond.

By analogy, the scope of the covid-19 assessment must be broad enough to learn what the pandemic reveals about our ability to deal with health crises. That includes understanding how the impact of the outbreak in the United States was shaped by how we prepared our resources: the state of our public health system; the ways we deliver health care across the nation; the roles, responsibilities, and resources of our health agencies; how we do and do not support hospitals and health-care workers; and our medical and pharmaceutical supply lines and purchasing policies.

John Farmer Jr., who helped lead the 9/11 Commission, outlined in an interview with Vox five systemic problems a Covid Commission should examine:

First, what is the right chain of command for dealing with a public health emergency that doesn’t respect political borders? The current system of the governors having primary decision-making authority really doesn’t work here, as I’ve said.

Second, what is the fastest way to leverage resources so you can scale up the response? Just as they did in World War II, where many industries turned on a dime and produced tanks and airplanes, how can we have that happen again?

Third, does too much of our critical manufacturing exist abroad now? Are we too dependent on foreign manufacturers to handle a crisis like this within our own borders? What are the implications of that?

Fourth, is our hospital system too disjointed, too fragmented to be able to handle something like this in a coordinated way? What do we need to do to ensure that we have adequate capacity in our hospitals?

Fifth, how do you handle the pandemic of disinformation at a time like this? People are being bombarded with things that are half-truths and outright lies, and how do you discipline that process when you have to? In the normal course of things, in a free society, you don’t have to. But in a crisis like this, you don’t want people walking around misinformed, and a lot of people are.

Luckily, there’s growing support on Capitol Hill for the appointment of a bipartisan Covid Commission once the emergency phase of the pandemic has passed. The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee has proposed legislation that would create:

a 25-member commission, whose members would be selected by the chair and ranking Republican on each of 12 House committees, as well as one member selected jointly by the chair and vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee.

Rep. Adam Schiff gave more detail on the House’s plans for designing and launching the commission, using the 9/11 Commission’s establishing legislation as a model:

It’s crucial of course that this commission be crafted and understood as non-partisan, and some measures being proposed — like ensuring that commissioners are not current officeholders — are encouraging. But it will be even more difficult now than it was in the early 2000s to keep partisanship from consuming the framing of the report in its creation and consumption. MSNBC in this interview above, for example, frames the story as a “commission to scrutinize Trump’s coronavirus response,” which is exactly not what the interview is about.

// Concluding thoughts

I titled this newsletter “The Covodyssey” because this pandemic was going to be a long and turbulent journey, rather than a sharp and concentrated crisis. It might seem like this emergency has been going on for months, but in fact we’re not even through the first few chapters.