A National Commission Should Probe Our Lame Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 14, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. We all know that, after 9/11, the families of the thousands of people who died, both in the terrorist attack and in trying to rescue people, demanded an examination and an investigation of what happened.

How did the terrorists get to do what they did? What was the response, and was it adequate? Did the government miss signals that an attack might come on the Pentagon or on the Twin Towers? They wanted answers, and ultimately they went to Congress and said, "We've had thousands of deaths. We must examine this incident. We need a national commission." One was created, and I think it did shed a lot of light on mistakes and successes regarding what happened around the terrible attacks.

We've also seen calls for a commission to look at the insurrection on January 6, 2021. People have said that there needs to be an examination of how it happened, who was involved, and the nature of the response. Did the police get overwhelmed? Why? Where was help in the form of the National Guard?

That's being widely discussed. People are saying that there were five or six deaths among people who were there and many others were injured, so we need to examine that threat to government. I support that creation of a commission.

What isn't being widely discussed — and I think should be — is the need for a national commission to examine this country's response to COVID-19. To date, there are more than 500,000 people dead, with the numbers still climbing, and many people have been hospitalized. Healthcare systems in many parts of this country have been brought to their knees by overwhelming stress and demand.

Healthcare workers are experiencing burnout, with some actually ending their lives because they were so overwhelmed by the demand that COVID-19 put on them. Hospitals are reeling in terms of their finances because elective procedures had to be closed. Families are grieving and bereaved, who couldn't deal with saying goodbye to loved ones because they were infected and nursing homes didn't know how to manage them.

What happened that this country wound up in this horrible situation, which is the worst mass public health crisis maybe ever, certainly in this century, and probably at least arguably going back to polio? What happened? How did we wind up in these circumstances?

Some may want to point their finger at the federal government. Some may want to point the finger of blame at governors. There may be inquiries that need to be had into how the pharmaceutical industry behaved, maybe how hospitals weren't prepared, where did equipment come from or not come from, and the protective gear that didn't seem to be around and may still be difficult to get.

What happened? How did we get there? What lessons were learned? How can we make sure that we never get into a situation again where so many of our citizens — as many as died in World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined — have died?

If there ever was a need for a commission... an independent, bipartisan, national group, willing to look at every and any issue, having subpoena power, the right to make sure that they get answers from all of those involved in decision-making, and opinions from some who are on the outside looking in, but had criticisms or ideas either that weren't listened to or that might have been listened to, we need to have that public discourse transparent.

The nation is traumatized, and it's going to take a long time to fully recover. I don't mean economically and I don't mean the schools; I mean psychologically. For people who lived through this, it's going to be one of the most searing events of their lifetimes.

I'm calling for the creation of a national COVID-19 commission. I think Congress can create it, and again, it should have bipartisan support. It should be something that everyone is willing to do, given the nature of this horrific plague that we have just lived through.

I'm Art Caplan, at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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