In the military, as in business and civilian life, leadership change can be needed to achieve victory or solve a problem. That’s where the U.S. is today with Covid-19.
Two years into the pandemic, the country’s efforts have stagnated. We have endured the catastrophic winter surge of 2020-2021, the Delta surge this summer, and are now being buffeted by the entirely predictable global rise of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. It is too early to forecast Omicron’s impact, but the failure to detect it, and the surprise U.S. health care leaders have expressed about its appearance, are intolerable. All of these result from an unrealistic and simplistic response to Covid-19 and a failure to address the basic tendency of viruses to mutate and become immune to a single vaccine or therapeutic.
Today’s situation with Covid-19 reminds me of a brutal lesson the U.S. military learned in 1943 at the hands of Nazi General Erwin Rommel, his Afrika Corps, and two divisions of Panzer tanks. Although U.S. and British forces had the advantage of numbers, the inexperienced and poorly led troops suffered many casualties and were pushed back from their strategic position at the Kasserine Pass.
Stung by this defeat, the first major battle against the Nazi war machine in North Africa, the U.S. reorganized commands, replaced obsolete tanks, improved air support, and, most importantly, fired the generals responsible for the defeat and brought in competent and aggressive generals like George Patton and Omar Bradley.
Repeated defeats by SARS-CoV-2, or at least the inability to properly fight it, suggest that the U.S. should be taking a similar leadership-change strategy today.
Little seems to have changed in how leaders and public health officials approach the virus since it emerged here in March 2020. Even in the most recent White House Task Force briefing, the dominant theme was the need to achieve comprehensive U.S. administration of vaccines and boosters. Though vaccines have played a vital role in protecting individuals from infection and serious illness, a more strategic response to this disease, with heightened attention to the important role of wearing face coverings as a preventive measure against Covid-19, was missing.
Trying to defeat Covid-19 with vaccines alone is based on an incomplete understanding of the virus, wedded to a belief that scientific shortcomings can be overcome by focusing on continuous messaging and ignoring problems or data that hint at the possibility of new and emerging shifts in threat.
U.S. vaccination results have shown that a one-and-done vaccine strategy, or even a 10-and-done strategy, is doomed to failure. This strategy is based on the belief that vaccines alone will protect U.S. citizens, even as the virus rages in many other parts of the world. Case in point: the U.S. has contributed only 300 million vaccine doses to other countries in a self-proclaimed example of “leadership and generosity.” To put the contribution in perspective, only 6.3% of the people who live in low-income countries have gotten even one vaccine dose. Without more substantial efforts at expanding worldwide availability of vaccines, the U.S. is imperiled by the development of variants that can —and will — spread from there to here.
Earlier diagnostic failures seem to have taught us nothing. Omicron was identified 36 hours after a clinician sent a specimen to a laboratory in South Africa, when it had already been present in the U.S. It went undetected here because health officials did not understand the importance of coordinated and broad-based sample gathering and sequencing — or political leaders didn’t have the will to support it.
Failing to directly deal with the realities of Covid-19 has led, as I write this, to nearly 800,000 deaths in the U.S. — many of them preventable — millions sickened, widespread societal changes, physical after-effects, and mental health problems. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy reported this week that symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youths experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms. Loneliness and depression have risen among adults, and deaths of despair are on the rise.
In every endeavor, confidence in leadership is essential for success, and there is every indication that confidence in the country’s Covid leadership is failing. The U.S. is past due for a radical change of leadership and strategies. President Biden needs to appoint a Supreme Covid Commander who will lead all government agencies and play a leadership role with other nations. The choice for this position must be someone who is politically independent, expert in viral diseases, and adept at coordinating the governmental agencies and business enterprises engaged in combating the coronavirus, just as government/business consortia successfully did in World War II.
Numerous people are needed to support this commander by managing critical aspects of his or her job. Recruit them and give team members the authority and funding to develop strategic and tactical global, national, and regional plans. Have them implement, administer, and adjust those plans to meet new contingencies and implement lessons learned. Monitor their results and, if they fail, replace them.
During my 22 years in the United States Marine Corps, doctrine said that problem solving was essential to achieving every mission. Solutions were implemented through mastery of equipment and data, strong leadership of troops, and taking the offensive whenever possible. Today, as a full-time health care analyst, I see no difference in the requirements for success in the war against Covid-19, except for a simple addendum: Public health initiatives against Covid must be global, coordinated, and explained thoroughly.
Steve Brozak, a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel, is the managing partner and president of WBB Securities, an investment firm focused on the life sciences.
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