How Politics Impeded America’s Response to COVID-19
Professor Rob DeLeo explains why elected officials choose to react to crises instead of preventing them
Most Americans are familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s celebrated axiom: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
According to Associate Professor of Public Policy Rob DeLeo, however, politicians today have little interest in heeding our Founding Father’s sage advice. In a live-streamed online presentation, “The Politics of Pandemic: A Public Policy Perspective on the Coronavirus,” DeLeo (pictured above) offered insight into the ways politics have shaped our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Participants from 10 countries joined DeLeo for his live-streamed presentation, the first in a series presented by the university’s Office of Alumni and Family Engagement. To support public health efforts and protect students, faculty and staff, Bentley has transitioned to online learning for the rest of the spring semester.
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DeLeo, a public policy expert and the author of Anticipatory Policymaking: When Government Acts to Prevent Problems and Why It Is So Difficult, said the U.S. was “almost totally unprepared” to deal with a crisis of this magnitude and squandered critical time at the beginning of the outbreak by failing to roll out coordinated, large-scale testing for the virus.
Though frustrating, he noted the federal response wasn’t surprising given the country’s historical reluctance to fund prevention-focused efforts: “We have never made sound investments in preparedness policy-making.” Most emergency management and public healthcare funding has been allocated to response and not prevention, he said, citing a study of federal expenditures from the mid-1980s through 2008, which found that $82 billion was spent on disaster relief, but just $7.5 billion on risk reduction and preparedness.
Elected officials are hesitant to champion preparedness, he said, because they believe voters want them to prioritize policies with more tangible benefits, such as tax breaks or funding for public schools. Yet, as DeLeo’s own research indicates, this is a false assumption. In a nationwide survey of voters that will be published soon, he and colleagues from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Wayne State University found widespread support for programs that provide both disaster relief and preparedness.
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What’s more, DeLeo says, voters responding to the survey seemed to understand that prevention policies make fiscal sense. Preparedness, he says, “has an excellent ROI”; it’s estimated that every dollar spent provides $7 in immediate savings and $15 in future savings for emergency management programs — in addition to saving lives.
So, how can we bridge this disconnect and encourage policymakers to invest in disaster preparedness and prevention? According to DeLeo, we need to be more vocal with elected officials about the programs we want them to support.
DeLeo also noted that how we talk about natural disasters can go a long way toward shaping policy behavior. As he sees it, “the best way to get policymakers and voters to think about the future is to describe the losses of the past.” For COVID-19 and the coronavirus, we’ve passed the point of preparation and entered disaster-relief mode. Once we’ve weathered this crisis, it will be critical to use this as a watershed event to remind policymakers of the dangers of not acting soon enough.
“Novel diseases are only one of a number of hazards” that future generations will have to contend with, De Leo cautioned. “I hope that we can learn from our mistakes.”