Nowhere have the problems with faltering American state capacity been more obvious than during the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years and counting. More than a million Americans are now dead, and most of those deaths could have been avoided with more effective governance. The venal incompetence of the Trump administration contributed to the disaster, but the problems with the U.S. pandemic response went far deeper than an absence of political leadership. American public health authorities, including institutions with previously sterling reputations, repeatedly failed to rise to the challenge of the first global pandemic in a century. They failed to develop proper testing, failed in their communication about the importance of masking, failed to assimilate the growing evidence of airborne aerosol transmission, failed to adapt quickly to that evidence by emphasizing the relative safety of outdoor activity and steering people away from the wasted effort of surface cleaning, and failed the nation’s children by keeping schools closed for far too long.
As part of its project on rebuilding American state capacity, the Niskanen Center is conducting a series of video interviews on lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. These interviews will explore various facets of what went wrong – as well as the less frequent examples of what went right – and why. In particular, they seek to identify the general problems of organizational structure and incentives that underlie the specific missteps. As we look back on this grim episode, our motivation is forward-looking: We need to learn the lessons from the pandemic to be better prepared for next time.