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Rutgers expert discusses U.S. national emergency response, coronavirus pandemic

The U.S. government's emergency response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic was not effective, and a more coordinated national and international response is necessary for the future, said John J. Farmer Jr., director of the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. – Photo by Wikimedia

With the U.S. approaching the one year mark since the start of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, John J. Farmer Jr., director of the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics, discussed the roles that different levels of government play in responding to national emergencies, as well as what the future of these responses may look like.

While the degrees of responsibility between state and federal governments often vary in regards to national emergencies, he said this responsibility has traditionally fallen on the shoulders of individual state and local governments, rather than the federal government.

“Most emergencies are best handled, at least tactically, at the state level, and even in states, sometimes at the local level,” Farmer said. "The protocols that are in place call for the governors to really be the most significant decision-makers in handling crises.”

Though, he said this emergency-response strategy may sometimes prove ineffective when responding to a national pandemic.

“What we’ve seen happen, though, with the COVID-19 pandemic, is that that protocol is simply inadequate to deal with a crisis that does not respect the political boundaries that define our emergency response system,” Farmer said.

He said that inefficiencies caused by this strategy are partially responsible for the uncoordinated response to the pandemic at its start, as well as more recent national issues, such as vaccine distribution.

A multi-faceted future of national emergency response protocol may be more effective than current policies, Farmer said, with the establishment of clearly defined mutual interstate and international compacts being one of the potential ways to better fight national emergencies like pandemics.

He said that international governing bodies should take larger roles in future emergencies that impact many countries and that more caution should be taken in general going forward. 

“I think (agencies like the United Nations and the World Health Organization) need to be strengthened, and they should be part of this reassessment of how allocations of responsibilities should be made in cases of pandemics because, you know, no one thinks this will be the last pandemic,” Farmer said.

He also noted the importance of looking to history as a guide for navigating national emergencies. Farmer specifically discussed the different ways that two major cities, Philadelphia and St. Louis, responded to the spread of the H1N1 virus in the early 20th century, where Philadelphia opted to host mass gatherings and St. Louis proceeded with more lockdowns.

“It was reflected almost instantly in the results, which we had massive, massive deaths in ... Philadelphia from the Spanish flu and much better results in St. Louis,” he said. “So you can derive lessons from the past.”

Despite the H1N1 pandemic taking place more than a century ago, Farmer spoke about the more relevant teachings to be considered today.

“Mask wearing became effective a hundred years ago and has proven effective this time as well,” he said. “Banning mass gatherings was demonstratively proven to be effective 100 years ago and ... should have been effective this year, but it wasn’t because people disregarded the warnings … and I think those lessons are there to be learned from.”

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