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Four Unlearned Pandemic Lessons

By Robert Weissman

As the United States ends the official pandemic emergency, we are a different country than we were before. We have lost more than a million people to the disease and many more are struggling with long COVID. Many businesses shuttered. Children had to live through major disruptions to school and daily life. Our geography changed with the rise of remote work. Vaccine technology made sudden and impressive leaps forward. Large-scale government programs averted recession, prevented people from being evicted from their homes, reduced poverty and improved nutrition.

From all this experience came important lessons about how we can make our nation healthier and more just. Unfortunately, many of these appear to be lessons not learned.

Unlearned Lesson #1: Vaccines and drugs invented with government funds must be reasonably priced

Operation Warp Speed was a great success in speeding the development of lifesaving vaccines and getting them to market. But even though taxpayers provided almost all of the financing for the vaccine sold by Moderna, Moderna gouged taxpayers, with its executives becoming billionaires. Now Moderna plans to quadruple COVID vaccine prices, ripping off patients and the public even more, and inevitably leading to needless rationing due to high prices.

Going forward, the government must impose contractual terms requiring recipients of federal biomedical research and development support to price their products reasonably and affordably.

Unlearned Lesson #2: American health in a pandemic depends on global health

The failure to share and scale up mRNA vaccine technology and production and speed global vaccination likely cost hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of lives around the world. It also made it more likely that new variants would emerge and that COVID would evolve into an endemic disease, which has in fact occurred.

Going forward, the U.S. should fund and commit to sharing mRNA technology with World Health Organization’s mRNA Technology Transfer Program.

Unlearned Lesson #3: We can expand health coverage

During the pandemic, federal government rules required states to keep people on Medicaid. This led to a significant increase in people receiving Medicaid and access to health care. Medicaid’s “continuous enrollment” rule ended in March, and experts project that will mean 8-24 million Medicaid-eligible people will be dropped and millions of them will become uninsured altogether.

Going forward, Medicaid should require states to adopt measures to keep eligible Medicaid persons enrolled. Beyond that, the United States should recognize that health care is a right and that everyone should be guaranteed quality health care through enacting Medicare for All.

Unlearned Lesson #4: We can cut child poverty

During the pandemic, the American Rescue Plan extended and fixed gaps in the Child Tax Credit. This program led to sharp reductions in U.S. child poverty, which fell to the lowest level on record, just above 5 percent. There were especially large reductions in child poverty in Black and Latino families. Unfortunately, the expanded Child Tax Credit was allowed to lapse.

Going forward, we have proof positive that we can slash child poverty, if we choose. The United States should reinstitute and build upon the success of the American Rescue Plan’s expanded Child Tax Credit.

Amid the devastation wreaked by COVID, we learned from positive and negative examples that We the People have the power to end rip offs, ensure health care for all, share the benefits of innovation globally, proactively prevent the spread of disease and eliminate poverty. With the end of the COVID public health emergency, however, it appears we are poised tragically to leave those lessons unlearned.