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ALERT: Pandemic Perspective

Tim Whitehouse

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As the novel coronavirus spreads across the country, many people have asked how we plan to continue to our work. The global impact of the coronavirus is bringing dramatic changes to how we live, many of which we have already begun to feel around the nation. For PEER, it will mean some big differences in our workplace and our lifestyles, but much of the work we are already doing will continue and expand.

Pandemic Risks
PEER has been in federal court for more than a year trying to force FEMA to release its Strategic National Risk Assessment, including the statistical profile of pandemic dangers. A key issue is whether the risk of pandemics has received an appropriate priority in our national preparedness posture.

Pandemic Planning
Our clients have pointed us to the decline of pre-pandemic planning in federal agencies such as CDC and USAID. Whistleblowers have reported dysfunction in pandemic response agencies at home and in their missions abroad operating out of U.S. diplomatic missions. Experts have seen their funding dry up, their scientific ability discounted, and their independence to tackle public health threats stifled. Highlighting these rollbacks will be an increasingly important task moving forward, as will protecting these sources.

Public Health Impacts
PEER is currently representing epidemiologists in both CDC and EPA whose work will be important in helping the country address arising major public health dangers. One focus is ongoing cuts to programs dealing with emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, which the administration has proposed to slash funding for by $85 million in fiscal year 2021.1 Another focus is how critical public health impacts will be aggravated by forces such as climate change. Climate change has driven humans and animals into closer proximity under harsher conditions, creating a ripe environment for the emergence of new diseases.

Protecting Public Employees
We will be working to make sure that public employees are afforded appropriate protections at work, including such measures as liberal teleworking and other steps needed to reduce the risk of infection at work. We advocate that First Responders at all levels of government have proper personal protective equipment and logistical support. The effects of unfolding steps on the care-giving workforce will be a growing focus of our public health docket.

Policing against Backsliding
In past disasters, such as hurricanes, enforcement of pollution-related protections has often slipped and, sometimes, has been abandoned altogether. Working with employee contacts, we will attempt to expose and remedy harmful breakdowns of pollution controls.

Public Health Safeguards
The efficacy and safety of disinfectant agents being applied in U.S. schools and other public institutions is something we are examining now. In the same vein, the effectiveness of disease-control measures such as aerial spraying of pesticides will be a growing focus for us.

Decline in Capacity
In the past few years, state and local public health programs have lost substantial fiscal support. Documenting and publicizing both the extent and impact of these declines will be a major contribution. We will continue to challenge the “hollowing out” of key health, international, and environmental bureaus through leaving key positions vacant or appointing low-level deputies or political appointees to run the bureaus instead of Senate-confirmed leaders.

At the same time, some of our current activity watch-dogging the Trump administration will take on a new importance. This week, for example, PEER exposed how the Interior Department issued mandatory talking points to its managers emphasizing how successful and “decisive” the White House has been in controlling this pandemic. Those talking points highlight the bankruptcy of the public communications strategy currently being employed.

A core PEER function will be continuing to ensure that public health experts have the capacity and the legal backing to speak truth to power.

Thank you for being part of PEER’s efforts.

All the best,
The PEER Team

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