Brian J. Gerber from Arizona State University and Melanie Gall from Arizona State University

After a month in office, the Biden government has fundamentally changed the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In direct contrast to his predecessor, President Joe Biden treats this as a national crisis that requires extensive national strategy and federal resources. If this sounds familiar, it should be: It is a return to a traditional – and in many ways proven – approach to disaster management.

The Trump administration is deviating dramatically from established business continuity management practices. It politicized public health and related decision-making processes and overridden the disaster control functions of federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Among other things, the Trump administration set up a completely new coordination structure under the direction of a White House task force and then switched the lead federal agency from Health and Human Services to FEMA. These actions, combined with a disjointed set of other operational task forces, made it difficult to produce an integrated response. Even basic data collection by hospitals to track the spread of the coronavirus has been messed up by changes.

The Biden administration now empowers key federal agencies to return to the roles and responsibilities for which they were designed within a planned national civil protection structure.

Our own work in hazard management with governments and non-governmental organizations has shown us that loyalty to proper processes and respect for expertise are essential for effective disaster management. The Biden government’s approach to the pandemic so far suggests that this is the model it will follow.

Which federal emergency measures have been developed?

The US federal disaster management system is inherently decentralized and tiered.

The system is structured so that local authorities take the lead in dealing with hazards and responding to local emergencies. However, when an emergency becomes a disaster problem, state and federal governments should be ready to provide financial and other assistance, particularly logistical assistance.

Founded in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, FEMA plays a vital role as the national emergency management coordinator. Getting all levels of government together with private and non-profit organizations to work together effectively is a major challenge. Major crises over the years, including the September 11th terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, have helped refine federal strategies and processes and prepare for future disasters – including pandemics – to improve.

Preparing for pandemics has been part of U.S. business continuity management planning since at least 2003. The 2009 H1N1 avian flu crisis sparked the passage of the Pandemic Approval and Prepared for All Hazards Act in 2013.The act specifically deals with developing medical variability capacities, developing pandemic vaccines and medicines, and more.

Managing a pandemic is more difficult than other types of disaster. Unlike a wildfire or tornado that hits a specific location for a limited period of time, a global pandemic is all-encompassing, affecting all jurisdictions and every economic sector. It requires focused coordination between public health and emergency response bureaucracies within government and with other key partners such as hospitals.

Given the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government would normally have taken the lead in coordinating the response and support. Instead, despite its limited capacity, the Trump administration placed primary responsibility for the pandemic response to state and local governments.

That approach was doomed to fail. It confused the use of the National Response Framework and created a competitive environment for state and local governments to search for supplies. Agencies involved in preparing for pandemics, such as the CDC and the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, have been incapacitated and specific plans to respond to pandemics have been ignored. It also politicized the choice of resource allocation and, through misinformation, undermined the importance of public health behaviors such as the wearing of masks.

Biden’s return to established practices

With this in mind, the Biden government’s early efforts to return to established disaster management practice underscore the importance of running complex systems in solving complex problems.

The list of changes in the month since Biden took office is extensive. The administration issued a comprehensive national strategy to combat pandemics. It increased the involvement of FEMA and the Department of Defense in support of vaccine distribution, expanded COVID-19 testing for underserved populations, and joined the World Health Organization from which Trump emerged. Biden also invoked the Defense Production Act to mobilize private industry and boost production of test kits, vaccines and personal protective equipment. The government is now calling for a national COVID-19 aid package in Congress.

The rapid strategic realignment of the federal government by the Biden government to deal with the pandemic has parallels with other complex challenges, including the development of a national strategy to combat climate change. Further refinement of these processes, including proper management of the federal red tape and public investment to reduce risk, should be priorities for the administration.

The conversation

Brian J. Gerber, Associate Professor at Watts College of Public Services and Solutions for the Community and Co-Director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security at Arizona State University; and Melanie Gall, Clinical Professor and Co-Director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security, Watts College, Arizona State University

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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