When the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the U.S. this past spring, many of our public institutions faltered. The Centers for Disease Control issued confusing and contradictory assurances and then bungled the rollout of tests for the disease. The FDA dropped the ball on speeding up the delivery of personal protective equipment. In New York, the governor and the city’s mayor postured like schoolboys while their citizens suffered through one of the world’s most intense outbreaks of the disease. And let’s not even talk about the White House.
It was enough to make one wonder whether our society still has the competence—or the will—to deal with a crisis anymore. Has our civilization reached the stage where, as Dylan sang, “everything is broken”?
The answer is no. In fact, many parts of our society—our industries, our scientific institutions, our critical infrastructure—showed surprising and impressive resilience.
Experts who model large-scale disasters have long worried that a serious shock to one of the country’s essential systems—a month-long blackout, say, or a large breakdown in our fuel supply, or, yes, a pandemic—could plunge the nation into the cascading collapse known as a “hyper-disaster.” Store shelves would go bare within days. Hungry gangs would roam blacked-out streets. Tens of millions could die.
None of that happened. Yes, supply chains were strained. As always, toilet paper was a leading indicator that people were stocking up on essentials—to a fault. Some staples were in short supply. Where I live, yeast, of all things, was impossible to find. Stuck at home, everyone apparently decided to start baking bread. But suppliers and retailers adapted. When prices for toilet paper shot up, they figured out how to shift inventory once destined for office buildings over to the domestic market.
The pandemic is still wreaking havoc on the economy and decimating incomes—with the most vulnerable, as always, bearing the brunt. And the COVID-19 death toll continues to be appalling. But no one has gone hungry because grocery stores went bare or trucks stopped rolling. In San Diego, a group of workers volunteered to self-quarantine at their water-supply plant to ensure that the drinking water kept flowing. Hospitals struggled—some still are—but patients got treated. And now, sooner than almost anyone dreamed possible, vaccines are arriving.
Faced with a once-in-a-century health crisis, our most crucial institutions generally held. President Trump was often criticized for not taking more complete control of medical supply chains under wartime law. But, in the end, private industry and free markets proved flexible and innovative. Again.
Let’s look at two particular cases. I’m talking about the less visible, but more crucial, parts of the digital ecosystem. For example, have you thanked your ISP lately? Internet service providers don’t get much love, and some of their business practices don’t make them very lovable. But in March and April, more than 40 percent of America’s workforce suddenly started working from home. Business districts went dark, while residential neighborhoods lit up with unprecedented Internet traffic. Demand for streaming entertainment skyrocketed.
In late 2019, Zoom, the virtual-meeting service, was hosting 10 million meeting participants per day. By April, that number was 300 million. The service had gone from being an occasional tool for a few to a daily necessity for millions. And not just workers. More than 50 million schoolchildren suddenly shifted to remote learning on Zoom and similar platforms. Zoom became a crucial medium of connection for friends and separated families; people had Zoom birthdays, weddings, Thanksgivings, even Zoom funerals.
Never before had our digital infrastructure been asked to do so much. Through it all, the service providers, the data centers, and the long-haul networks that keep the Internet running held up. More than 800 ISPs also responded to a request from the FCC to “keep Americans connected” by relaxing data caps and offering discounted services to low-income customers. Today, people expect the Internet to be like electricity—something that just works whenever you turn it on. For most of us during the pandemic, that has been the case.
And when the final history of this pandemic is written, some of the key heroes in the story will be the world’s pharmaceutical companies. Yes, Big Pharma, those predatory villains that progressives—and even some Republicans—love to rail against. On January 10, 2020, in what one observer called “an act of scientific and humanitarian generosity,” a brave Chinese scientist made public the genomic sequence for SARS-CoV-2 (the type of coronavirus that causes COVID-19). After that, it took only two days for the biotech firm Moderna to engineer a vaccine. Two days! Pfizer and other drug makers were close behind.
But having a vaccine in the lab is not the same as having one ready for the public. Getting a new vaccine through the necessary testing phases typically takes five years and can cost billions. To have one ready in a year or less would mean running clinical trials simultaneously (rather than sequentially) and starting to manufacture doses months before knowing if the vaccine would even pass the tests. What if the pandemic faded away before the vaccine was ready? What if some other drug maker got there first? A company could spend billions testing a vaccine only to see its market evaporate overnight.
Trump-administration officials at the Department of Health and Human Services knew that no private company could shoulder all the risks of bringing a new vaccine to market so quickly. So they decided to prime the pump. Beginning March 30—without waiting to find out whether any of the vaccine candidates would actually work—HHS began funneling billions to the leading contenders, including Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. The money helped the companies spool up production and testing in weeks rather than years. More crucially, it guaranteed them a market. As early as July, the U.S. government placed an initial order for 100 million doses of the still unproven Pfizer vaccine. The project soon became known as Operation Warp Speed. It involves some 600 HHS officials, along with at least 60 military officers, who are supervising the logistical challenge of distributing millions of doses to all parts of the country.
With stunning speed, the government marshaled the kinds of resources only governments have. Then the pharmaceutical companies did what private industry does best: harness the world’s best pharmacological know-how. Experts had believed it would take at least 18 months for an only partially effective vaccine to be approved. Instead, the Pfizer vaccine—with 95 percent efficacy—passed the FDA’s advisory panel in early December. As analyst Zeynep Tufekci wrote, “what we have is a vaccine ready at half the time the most optimistic timeline projected, with twice the efficacy hoped for.”
A few days after the good news on vaccines broke, I happened to catch an NPR interview with Steven Thrasher, a professor at the University of Missouri’s Medill School of Journalism. Thrasher has written about inequities in the way treatments for HIV reach marginalized communities and believes that similar problems will hobble the rollout of coronavirus vaccines. What’s the main problem? the interviewer asked. “In a word, capitalism.” The vaccine, he argued, must be deployed in an “anti-capitalist” manner.
Rubbish. The vaccine wouldn’t exist without capitalism. At a time when a nearly unprecedented disease was ravaging the whole world, capitalism wasn’t the problem. It was the solution. Capitalism kept people fed, it kept them connected, and it helped stave off a far worse catastrophe. And now, assisted by timely government action, it is producing the vaccines that promise to banish this scourge from our lives—and it’s reminding us what human ingenuity can achieve.
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