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Pepperdine | School of Public Policy

How will COVID-19 Change American Public Policy?


During a recent class I taught to undergraduates (via Zoom, of course), I was asked what public policy had to do with the coronavirus pandemic. "After all," the student raised, "doesn't this crisis have more to do with healthcare and medicine?" My response was direct, "The reason all of us are meeting online, and you all have been forced to leave campus, is due to a series of public policy and public leadership failures—from the international to local/municipal levels."

Find out more about Pepperdine School of Public Policy's HSAC@SPP initiative and the work we are doing to support local government emergency operations officials with the latest crisis mapping technology.

This is not to say that these failures weren't understandable, but like few times in our history, international policy institutions, American governments (from federal to state to local agencies), and the intricate relationships between governments, nonprofits, and the private sector are under foundational stress tests. While our medical researchers work on a vaccine, and our frontline first responders—nurses, doctors, and emergency personnel—care for victims of this virus, it is not too early to consider the policy breakdowns that have led us to this point, and to begin the discussion of what a "Post-COVID-19 Policy World" looks like. Let's explore these issues at three levels:

Foreign Policy

The COVID-19 pandemic has its roots in international relations and the policies of particular foreign governments and international non-governmental organizations, all attempting to restrain the spread of the virus. In so many ways, all of us are victims and beneficiaries of the decisions other countries are making. Of course, the virus began in the city of Wuhan, China, and spread around the world via carriers (both Chinese nationals and non-Chinese nationals) who were allowed to leave the place of origin.

While the exact source of coronavirus remains to be determined, what is becoming increasingly clear are the missteps of Chinese government officials in not more aggressively arresting COVID-19 through immediate quarantine and travel limitation policies. While not the only nation in the world to have a pandemic initiate on its soil, this is not the first time an epidemic started from China. The New York Times reported on the new government policies implemented by the Chinese government in response to SARS in 2002. Demonstrating the reality that the human component can break down even the best systems, the Times' investigation showed that when the coronavirus hit Wuhan, instead of reporting the spread to senior Chinese leadership, "hospitals deferred to local health officials who, over a political aversion to sharing bad news, withheld information about cases from the national reporting system—keeping Beijing in the dark and delaying the response."

As more research into the pandemic's early days continues, what appears to be clear is the spread of the virus beyond Wuhan was at least exacerbated by a lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese government. In a piece for Foreign Policy magazine titled, "China Will Do Anything to Deflect Coronavirus Blame," the writers cite a number of delays in public communications about the virus by the Chinese government, along with continued questioning of their recent reports about the nation's progress in "bending the curve" of the epidemic.

Foreign Policy Post-COVID-19

While the news changes by the day, it is fair to say that in a post-coronavirus world, American foreign policies toward China will grow more suspect, and, possibly confrontational. For more than three decades, the American view of China has been driven by the economic advantages provided by perceived free trade with China. These advantages must now be put into the larger context of the trillions of dollars of economic activity lost due to COVID-19.

The broader public realization by the American public of how greatly this country depends on China for manufacturing such a wide variety of products directly related to the healthcare crisis—from N-95 masks to pharmaceuticals—has raised important questions about global supply chains. Stronger national policies about regulating where American companies can produce their products are now being asked.

To be clear, it's not just the United States that is raising these issues. Recently, Australia declared that the national government will review all major foreign direct investment into the country by China, as they seek to prevent "poaching" of Australian companies during an economic downturn precipitated by the pandemic.

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National Policy

The federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been of a scope and scale not seen since World War II. The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill—even with its last-second wrangling—showed that Congress and the White House could work together in a time of emergency. What remains to be seen is how this largest federal spending measure in American history will actually address the massive economic downturn; only time will tell.

See what Pepperdine School of Public Policy's American Project initiative is doing to explore the historical and philosophical issues brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our new essay series with some of America's leading political thinkers is at RealClearPolicy.

What we can conclude already, is that the coronavirus has exposed regulatory challenges at the two major federal agencies engaged in pandemic response—Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Food & Drug Administration (FDA). A number of articles have been written about the policy decisions made in January to forgo the World Health Organization (WHO) testing process in order to create their own. In a piece for the website POLITICO, questions are posed about that time period, "But neither the CDC nor the coronavirus task force chaired by Vice President Mike Pence would say who made the decision to forgo the WHO test and instead begin a protracted process of producing an American test, one that got delayed by manufacturing problems, possible lab contamination and logistical delays."

Some of the hurdles hampering quicker national response have also been in the research area, where scientists have run up against bureaucratic challenges to their work. In a New York Times' story titled, "It's Just Everywhere Already': How Delays in Testing Set Back the U.S. Coronavirus Response," the writers look into the problems faced by Seattle researchers looking to gain access to a relevant regional flu study, only to be told by federal officials that they didn't have permission. The frustrations experienced by two scientists—Drs. Chu and Lindquist—are outlined in the piece, "Dr. Chu and Dr. Lindquist tried repeatedly to wrangle approval to use the Seattle Flu Study. The answers were always no. 'We felt like we were sitting, waiting for the pandemic to emerge,'" Dr. Chu said. "'We could help. We couldn't do anything.'"

For a comprehensive outline of the federal government's policy response since the start of the coronavirus crisis, this is a good overview by the DC-based think tank, the Brookings Institution.

National Policy Post-COVID-19

As of this writing, calls are already being issued by political leaders—along mostly partisan lines—to launch an investigation commission of the sort that was created after 9/11 and the Great Recession. As the saying goes, there will no doubt be "plenty of blame to go around" for the slow response of the federal government to the pandemic, but all future searches for culpability should be put into the broader context framed so well by the former astronaut and airline executive, Frank Borman, during an investigation into the deaths of three astronauts in 1967 in a launch pad failure. When asked for the reason why this could have happened, he famously said it was a "failure of imagination." This essential leadership skill—the ability to imagine challenges before they happen, and to source expertise from a variety of backgrounds and levels is often what is necessary to respond to major crises.

That said, as there was after 9/11, major changes will be forthcoming in national policy and structure due to COVID-19. No doubt there will be major changes made to the federal government's stockpile of medical supplies, which has been stretched to beyond capacity by the pandemic. There will also be modifications made to CDC and FDA regulations around research-sharing, emergency medical device-manufacturing, and drug-testing. The gradual rollout of the National Defense Production Act—engaging private sector companies to produce emergency supplies (in this case, ventilators, masks, etc.) will also be scrutinized and, possibly, updated. New cross-sector organizations—including government and private sector businesses—may spring from the COVID-19 crisis, understanding the necessity of creating better lines of communication between government and manufacturing companies.

School of Public Policy Alumni

Many Pepperdine Public Policy School alumni are working in the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including Andrew Weathers ('98, MPP '00) at the CDC, LaToya Butler (MPP '13) at FEMA, Peter Griffith (MPP '10) at the State Department, and many more.

State/Local Policy

America's federalist governing structure and diffuse policymaking down to the most local levels has highlighted both the advantages and detractions of this model. On the positive side, as the pandemic has had disparate impacts across the country (i.e., New York suffering the highest number of cases, with much of the Midwest remaining relatively untouched), the ability to focus resources and customize policy responses to the governing agencies that know their particular needs has been helpful. On the negative side, as the virus demands consistent "shelter-in-place" policies, states and municipal governments have been responding in different ways to the crisis—with some governments taking immediate action to limit social interaction, and others remaining relatively disengaged until the present.

One significant challenge to our federalist system revealed by COVID-19 are the problems associated with state-by-state procurement of emergency supplies. While free-market competition is generally considered a positive condition for the apportionment of goods, states are battling with one another for lifesaving equipment in an environment called the "Wild West" by one state official in Illinois. This is a set of public policies which will be reviewed and, probably, changed in the months and year to come.

The flexibility provided by our Constitutional system places greater responsibility on state and local leaders for policymaking, and is illustrated by the variety of policy decisions made by major city leaders and state governors/legislators, from mandated shelter-in-place policies to different criteria for testing, local and state leaders are attempting to balance political, economic, and health considerations.

State & Local Policy Response Post-COVID-19

As with our federal government and international governing institutions, state and local governments will be evaluated by policy researchers for the decisions they're making in response to the pandemic. Some state government leaders are already calling for more robust federal engagement with the coronavirus, but thus far, the Trump Administration appears to be committed to allowing state/local level policymaking, and to find other ways of supporting these governments. This federal/state relationship will be analyzed thoroughly in the months to come.

It is probable that entirely new organizational structures will be created at the state and local levels to better prepare for a future pandemic. In other words, the organizational changes that were brought about by 9/11 at the federal level, will again be seen in state and local governments. These will include new cross-sector partnerships between governments, the business and nonprofit sectors on issues ranging from manufacturing needs to emergency response.

School of Public Policy Alumni

Pepperdine School of Public Policy alumni are working throughout the country in state and local governments and nonprofit agencies responding to coronavirus. Just to name a few: Kevin McGowan (MPP '10) the director of emergency operations for Los Angeles County, David Mansdoerfer (MPP '11) at the University of North Texas Health System, State Senator Hans Zeiger (MPP '09) in Washington, Eunique Day (MPP '17) at the City of Carson in California, Sean Gill (MPP '07) at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Alyssa Barnes (MPP '18) at the Homeland Security Advisory Council at the School of Public Policy, and many more!

Find out more about Pepperdine School of Public Policy's HSAC@SPP initiative and the work we're doing to support local government emergency operations officials with the latest crisis mapping technology.

As there was after 9/11, the policy and governance changes precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic will be significant at all levels of governance. The types of policy leaders prepared by Pepperdine's School of Public Policy are perfectly positioned to assume important roles in the "Post-COVID-19 World," just as our alums are doing today—men and women who can find creative policy solutions across sectors and across the aisle.