Four Futures for U.S. Pandemic Policy
19 Pages Posted: 18 May 2021 Last revised: 26 Aug 2021
Date Written: May 15, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic is probably not the last time that a new and deadly infectious disease will sweep the planet. What can the United States do to improve its changes of averting large-scale loss of life the next time? This essay — prepared for The University of Chicago Legal Forum’s symposium issue on “Law for the Next Pandemic” — envisions four “futures” for the United States’ pandemic response and considers the advantages and drawbacks of each.
One approach, the Mass Surveillance strategy, relies on widespread population monitoring, rigorous contact tracing, and enforced isolation of the infected. That strategy has enabled several East and Southeast Asian countries to keep case counts low without instituting long lockdowns. In the United States, the Mass Surveillance approach would face surmountable constitutional hurdles but potentially insurmountable cultural obstacles. A second option, the Fortress strategy, combines lockdowns to stop community transmission with border closures to prevent reintroduction of the infection. Australia and New Zealand illustrate the Fortress approach’s lifesaving potential, but their examples will be difficult to replicate in a country with a much larger population and long land borders. A third approach, the Internationalist strategy, emphasizes global cooperation with the goal of preventing animal-to-human transmission and containing any outbreak quickly. That approach is appealing — and worth pursuing — but it faces the high probability that it won’t work. A fourth approach, the Early Vaccination strategy, would truncate the clinical trial process and boost vaccine production capacity so that a large portion of the U.S. population could be vaccinated within several months of an outbreak. This, too, is worth a try, but even a rapidly developed vaccine is unlikely to protect us from a pandemic’s first wave. Ultimately, the essay recommends that the United States follow an all-of-the-above approach — preparing to pursue the Mass Surveillance, Fortress, Internationalist, and Early Vaccination strategies—without being overly optimistic about the prospect that any single one of these strategies will succeed.
Keywords: pandemic preparedness, COVID-19, next pandemic
JEL Classification: I18, K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation