In January 2020, the U.S. was experiencing a growing economy and the lowest unemployment in years, and borrowing was at record low rates. We were on one of the “best rides” in recent years of economic growth when, abruptly, we were faced with a sweeping pandemic that we knew little about. Officially, American deaths from this disease have now reached a staggering 100,000; 40 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. Many Americans have unbridled accumulation of medical supportive care costs and are experiencing rampant food insecurity. Additionally, the U.S. government issued a massive federally funded economic assistance package, and at least one more package will soon follow.
A 2019 report from the Brown University Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Costs of War Project entitled “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 Wars through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion” stated that al-Qaida spent an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 to plan and carry out the successful terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. For Americans, it has cost much more. The report estimated that the War on Terror has cost the U.S. a total of $6.4 trillion through fiscal year 2020. It is quite probable that the estimated cost impact of COVID-19 on domestic public and economic health may exceed the wartime costs that resulted from the 9/11 attacks, with some analysts conservatively estimating the cost to be $7 trillion.
For our food supply, managing public health outbreaks depends strongly on well-structured food safety and food defense systems, clear communication, and access to information—key components that determine an appropriate public response to global incidents, as we have seen in past events, such as the melamine contamination that occurred in 2007 and 2008.
In any important food protection event, there is an urgent need to quickly provide the best available scientific information and knowledge about any incident. One food defense lesson we continue to learn is that there is never enough time to completely understand the magnitude of the problem, identified or unidentified, before choosing to inform the public health authorities and the public at large. Such preemptive actions can save lives and help to control the harmful extent of an outbreak.
While the fast-spreading, highly transmissible novel coronavirus caught most of the world by surprise, the scenario itself was not new. Through previous viral outbreaks in world history, we have learned that businesses large and small and, in particular, retailers (i.e., restaurants), which constitute approximately 20% of consumer spending in the U.S., would have been more prepared if they had had response and recovery plans in place. A disaster plan would include policies, including those preparing for a response to communicable disease, designed to keep employees safe and businesses viable. Advanced preparation for such a pandemic would have reduced the numbers of illnesses, deaths, and business failures that have affected healthcare workers, first responders, and the general public.
Lacking clear policy and direction from political leadership, society has responded with massive intervention of medical supportive care, attempts to dismantle social unrest, and administration of business and political triage.
It is a good moment to remind my readers that agriculture is designated as critical to public health and the nation’s economy. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the sector annually produces more than $300 billion worth of food and other farm products, provides a major foundation for prosperity in rural areas, and is estimated to be responsible for providing one out of every 12 U.S. jobs. As such, several directives have established national policies to defend food and agricultural systems from various types of emergencies.
Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9 (HPSD-9). In January 2004, President George W. Bush established a national Homeland Security policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. HSPD-9 assigns federal agency responsibilities to enhance the nation’s preparedness for food and agriculture emergencies. For example, HSPD-9 assigns USDA responsibility for four efforts related to emergency response and recovery, including serving as co-lead with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to enhance recovery efforts.