Searching for Winning Public Health Strategies in Lessons from the Covid War

April 24, 2023

At the beginning of 2021, Ruth Faden, founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman institute of Bioethics, joined 33 other leading national experts to form the Covid Crisis Group. The goal of the group was to lay the groundwork for a National Covid Commission, thinking that the U.S. government would soon establish a formal commission to study the biggest global crisis of the twenty-first century. So far, it has not.

In the face of this faltering political momentum—a void where there should be an agenda for change—the group decided to speak out for the first time. On Tuesday, April 25, they will publish Lessons from the Covid War (PublicAffairs), the first book to distill the entire Covid story from ‘origins’ to ‘Warp Speed.’ With the U.S. ending its formal declaration of a public health emergency earlier this month, this investigative report reveals what just happened to us, and why. Plain-spoken and clear-sighted, Lessons from the Covid War cuts through the enormous jumble of information to make some sense of it all.

“Our public health system was neither set up nor able to respond in the way the country needed, in part because of an antiquated division of labor in our federalist system,” said Faden, who chaired President Clinton’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.

“There was not, and still is not, any kind of centralized national mechanism for responding to massive but non-military threats like a pandemic or climate change. As a consequence, too often, states were left without adequate guidance and had to create regulations and policies on their own.”

During the pandemic, Faden co-led a multi-disciplinary team that created the eSchool+ Initiative to  provide tools and resources regarding Covid policy for K-12 schools, as well as the  COMIT project to track global vaccine policies for pregnant and lactating people. Since June, 2020 she has also served on the WHO SAGE Working Group on COVID-19 Vaccines that provides policy guidance on vaccine prioritization and use. Faden also helped lead a partnership between the Berman Institute and the SNF Agora Institute that in May 2020 published an ethics framework for the Covid reopening process.

The Covid Crisis Group is holding a discussion of its findings at the National Academy of Medicine on Monday, April 24, one day in advance of their report’s publication. Faden will moderate the session, “19th Century System Meets 21st Century Pandemic,” at 2:15 p.m. The entire discussion will be broadcast online here, starting at 12:30 p.m. Faden says topics from the book that her panel will address include not only what went wrong with our public health and health care systems but also what strategies need to be adopted, what needs to be changed or updated, so that both public health and healthcare will be fit for 21st century pandemic purposes.

“The United States, despite its great wealth, advanced science, and state of the art medical care didn’t handle Covid better than other countries and, in fact, did worse than most,” said Faden.

“The pandemic showed Americans that our scientific knowledge had run far ahead of our nation’s ability to apply it in practice. I hope this book will show how Americans can come together, learn hard truths, build on what worked, and prepare for global emergencies to come.”