The Grim Lesson of Congress’s Failure to Pass COVID Funding

Julio Francisco waits for people to show up for COVID-19 tests on January 13, 2022 in Miami, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

COVID has now killed 977,000 Americans. Nearly 1,000 deaths are still being added to that toll each day. The pandemic’s economic costs are similarly high and rising. In late 2020, a Harvard University study projected that COVID would cost the U.S. $16 trillion, assuming that the virus would be “substantially contained by the fall of 2021.” The public-health catastrophe’s actual price tag now almost certainly exceeds that number.

Neither the high probability of an imminent pandemic nor the astronomical economic costs of one were unknown to U.S. policymakers before March 2020. For decades, public-health experts and advocates had been warning that we live in an unprecedentedly pathogenic world, and that it was only a matter of time before an emergent virus escaped containment and wrought chaos. In September 2019, a report commissioned by the World Bank and World Health Organization began, “There is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people.”

Nevertheless, that year, the CDC’s annual budget for combating emerging diseases was only $500 million. The National Institutes of Health’s total budget for its program on infectious diseases was roughly $5.5 billion, with only a small fraction of that sum going toward pandemic prevention. In other words, the U.S. government treated pandemic funding as a frivolous luxury, one roughly 0.01 percent as important as upgrading our national stockpile of nuclear warheads.

Many epidemiologists feared that America would have to learn about the importance of funding public health the hard way. Only after seeing a novel pathogen kill hundreds of thousands, and capsize the global economy, would Congress finally see that there was nothing “fiscally responsible” about pinching pennies on pandemics.

This assessment was far too optimistic. As America closes in on 1 million COVID deaths, our government isn’t just neglecting to invest in preparations for the next pandemic; it’s failing to fund efforts to combat our current one.

This would be disconcerting enough if it had no broader political implications. But America’s response to COVID also bodes poorly for its prospects of tackling climate change.

Earlier this month, Congress passed a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bill. As part of that legislation, President Biden had proposed a $15 billion appropriation to prop up existing COVID programs. Without that funding, the White House warned, the government would not be able to sustain its purchases of monoclonal antibodies and breakthrough antiviral treatments, which can turn potentially fatal cases of COVID into mild bouts of cold-like illness. It would also have to scale back its purchases of vaccine doses, leaving the U.S. without the stockpile necessary for providing all adults with an additional booster shot, should a future variant warrant one. The funding lapse would also stymy efforts to improve vaccine access in poor nations, where new variants could form and spread. Its most immediate and salient impact, however, would be to choke off free COVID testing, treatment, and vaccines to the uninsured by early April.

Congress declined to pass the appropriation, anyway. As with most manifestations of political dysfunction in the U.S., primary fault for this failure lies with the GOP. Congressional Republicans refused to support new COVID spending unless it was offset with cuts to funding for state-level pandemic programs. Democrats balked. All COVID aid was dropped.

Negotiations over a stand-alone COVID-funding package remain ongoing. But the government has already stopped funding testing and treatment for the uninsured. Meanwhile, congressional interest in preparing for — and/or, preventing — the next pandemic is tepid. The Senate advanced a bipartisan pandemic-preparedness bill earlier this month. But that legislation does not include any “major new funding,” according to The Hill.

The opportunity costs of this miserliness are difficult to overstate. COVID has not just illuminated the hazards of skimping on pandemic preparedness, but also increased the expected return on such investments.

Over the past two years, mRNA vaccines have come into maturity, a development that has made the formulation of universal flu and coronavirus vaccines — which is to say, vaccines that would inhibit the spread of any strain of those viruses — eminently plausible. At the same time, the surveillance technique of wastewater detection, which enables epidemiologists to anticipate outbreaks before they generate widespread symptomatic infection in a community, has grown more sophisticated and prevalent. With robust federal investment, America could put itself in a position to detect the next emergent virus while it is still containable, and/or, to inoculate its population against that virus before it even comes into existence.

But we have apparently decided that it is more important to prevent this year’s federal deficit from increasing by roughly 0.4 percent than it is to invest in technologies and infrastructures that could avert another multitrillion-dollar public-health catastrophe. Blame for this madness does not rest with Republicans alone. Democrats have the power to unilaterally invest in pandemic preparedness through their budget-reconciliation bill. As of this writing, however, it looks like the fiscal superstitions of the Senate’s most conservative Democrats will prevent the party from doing so.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators in multiple red states are fighting to roll back mandates requiring public-school children to receive vaccines against polio, measles, mumps, and rubella. So in some parts of America, the pandemic has actually led policymakers to take public health less seriously.

The causes of decarbonization and pandemic preparedness raise many of the same political challenges. Both require persuading lawmakers with near-term electoral horizons to prioritize long-term problems. Both cannot hope to sustain public support in the absence of widespread trust in established scientific expertise. And both concern threats that are too hypothetical, diffuse, global, and easily naturalized to prompt the sense of urgency and visceral alarm that they warrant.

Some climate hawks have dared to dream that, eventually, Americans would recognize the ecological crisis as a “national security” issue. And once the public realized that rising temperatures pose an exponentially greater threat to their civilization than Al Qaeda ever did, Congress might deem investment in the green transition too imperative to delay with debates over “how to pay for it.” After all, partisan disputes over taxation never forestall budget increases for the Pentagon.

But COVID has made it clear that the politics of national security can’t be extended to figurative wars. When Congress passed its budget bill this month, it had no difficulty finding bipartisan consensus on a $13.6 billion aid package for Ukraine. Rather than holding those funds hostage to revenue disputes, lawmakers simply appropriated the funds. It was an emergency, after all.

Alas, a virus killing thousands of Americans could not command the same sense of urgency as an armed conflict half a world away. This is partly a testament to the strength of America’s military-industrial complex and associated lobbies. But it also seems to reflect deeply ingrained tendencies within human psychology. Simply put, human beings seem to respond more readily to the threat of violent aggression from other humans than they do to more diffuse and “natural” sources of mortal peril. In 2019, a poll found that 68 percent of Americans were unwilling to pay $10 more on their monthly electricity bills to combat climate change; this month, the same pollster found that 63 percent were willing to pay higher gas prices for the sake of aiding the Ukrainian cause.

In any case, it is unlikely that any near-term climate disaster will kill 977,000 Americans within a two-year time span. If a mass-death event at that scale was not sufficient to foster a political consensus in favor of robust public-health investment, it seems unlikely that any impending natural disaster is going to fundamentally remake climate politics in the U.S.

With respect to both COVID and climate change, immense progress can be made merely by fully deploying existing technological breakthroughs. If all Americans had simply availed themselves of freely available vaccines, COVID would have ceased to be a major cause of death in the U.S. months ago. And if Congress had adequately funded COVID treatment, life-saving antiviral medications could be easily accessible in the near future.

Yet these things have proven impossible. Despite having a life-or-death incentive to recognize the validity of established epidemiological science — and needing to sacrifice little more than an unpleasant day to secure protection from fatal infection — tens of millions of at-risk Americans turned down vaccination.

This too is ominous from a climate perspective. Americans have far less incentive to accept the IPCC’s recommendations than Anthony Fauci’s. Conservatives who “roll coal” and vote for climate deniers do not significantly increase their personal risk of premature death by doing so. And the same can be said of “progressives” who oppose emissions-reducing transmission lines or solar farms in the name of conservation.

The green transition need not be an austere enterprise. A cleaner economy can be a more prosperous one. But it is nevertheless the case that effectively addressing climate change will require Americans to accept far more durable changes to their ways of life, and more routine sacrifices of competing ideological imperatives, than combating COVID ever did. If we could not reach consensus on the propriety of temporary mask mandates to protect our own physical well-being and that of our loved ones, it’s going to be hard to find consensus in favor of accepting more expensive carbon energy for the sake of hypothetically reducing the severity of climate disruptions decades in the future.

One can take such dour thoughts too far. Thanks to coal’s displacement by renewables and natural gas, we have made substantial progress on climate change over the past decade. The worst-case scenarios are much less probable today than they were a few short years ago. Furthermore, both COVID and climate change have inspired heroic efforts of technological innovation that could immeasurably improve life for future generations. And while our species’s technical acumen outpaces its political rationality, Congress has not been wholly useless. Since 2020, multiple historically large, bipartisan green-technology bills have made it into law. And Congress will probably pass some form of pandemic funding before the year is out.

Nevertheless, our political system’s failure to treat pandemic funding as a priority — after an emergent virus has wiped out 977,000 Americans and counting — is a sign of collective insanity. We are not ready for the challenges that the Anthropocene will bring. And it’s getting hard to see how we will ever be.

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The Grim Lesson of Congress’s Failure to Pass COVID Funding