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Editorial: Protecting our own

History one day will judge whether the COVID-19 pandemic ranks with events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11 on the American disaster scale.

As of today it would appear to be a distinct possibility, looking at rising death tolls, a cascade of patients potentially overwhelming the health care system, widespread shutdowns and the prospect of a devastated economy with unemployment rates exceeding 20 percent.

That’s why it’s critical that as we emerge from this — and emerge we will — we take a deep dive into how this happened and how we can prevent it in the future.

That’s not unprecedented.

After 9/11, the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States produced a report based on extensive interviews and testimony that led to national security changes. We’ve not seen another attack on that scale since then. After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed a commission headed by an associate justice of the Supreme Court with the sole purpose of investigating the facts related to the Pearl Harbor attack.

A similar commission now would no doubt find we have put ourselves at risk by outsourcing too much critical manufacturing, from technology to medicine, to China in particular but also to other countries. The Chinese government has its own global ambitions and doesn’t have our interests at heart. Why would we expect it to? And an honest analysis also would show we must shoulder much of the blame for a willingness to trade profits for national security.

At the top of the “to-do” list going forward should be taking steps to ensure we have sufficient capacity in this country to manufacture our own medical supplies and medicines like antibiotics.

That alarm bell already had been rung before the outbreak. And before the dictatorship that runs China spent crucial weeks suppressing facts and news about it — giving the deadly and contagious virus a headstart on the rest of the world.

Earlier last year, the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission established by Congress in 2000 warned that our dependence on China as the world’s largest producer and exporter of “active pharmaceutical ingredients” put the health of Americans and our national security at risk.

“Should Bejing opt to use U.S. dependence on China as an economic weapon and cut supplies of critical drugs,” the report noted, “it would have a serious effect on the health of U.S. consumers.”

Trump’s former economic adviser Gary Cohn argued in August that we shouldn’t anger the Chinese in a trade war because if “you’re China and you really want to destroy us, just stop sending us antibiotics.”

Some estimates are as high as 97% for our dependence on China for key medicines.

Not a problem?

Consider that a Communist Party organ irked at criticism of China’s handling of the outbreak raised the spectre of withholding medicines and plunging the U.S. “into a sea of coronavirus.” Note: Except for foreign journalists, there is no free press in China. So take that kind of threat seriously.

In response to the crisis, a bipartisan group of senators led by Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced legislation to safeguard America’s medical supply chain and address shortages due to U.S. dependence on foreign-made medical equipment.

“The global coronavirus outbreak has heightened awareness around the vulnerability we have when it comes to American reliance on foreign-made medical supplies,” the senators said last week. “We have to develop a strategy to strengthen domestic production and supplies.…” The legislation — the Commission on America’s Medical Security Act — would require consultation with the departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Defense, Commerce, Justice, State and Veterans Affairs as well as public health, medical and commercial industry stakeholders.

Hallelujah! A belated epiphany, but better late than never.

No one should oppose trade and economic/diplomatic relations. The Chinese people aren’t our enemy and this isn’t about nationalism or isolationism. It’s about producing things in this country that we simply can’t do without and that failure to do so puts us at the mercy of regimes like the one that runs China.

Medicines aren’t the only thing on that list.

After Pearl Harbor and 9/11, it was clear that America needed to wake up. It’s that time again. The challenge is clear and it’s up to our elected leaders to deal with it.

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