The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of federal action in coordinating emergency public health response, according to a commentary in Fortune by Fanyin Zheng, an assistant professor of the Decision, Risk, and Operations Division of Columbia Business School. In the op-ed, titled “States cannot fight coronavirus alone. The federal government must step up,” Zheng notes that to the present “control measures have been mainly the initiative of individual states, rather than the federal government. This has been the case for social distancing policies and medical resource allocations alike.” Zheng also notes that President Trump continues to support this decentralized approach — and argues that this policy is mistaken.
- In a nutshell: “[R]esearch shows that in the face of epidemics, there is no substitute for centralized, federal-level actions when designing effective policies. The reason is that states and cities are not isolated from one another. They are interconnected because individuals and goods travel freely among them without any screening or testing.”
- As a result of these connection, epidemiologists face network effects that extend far beyond the boundaries of cities or states. Additionally the federal government is logically the responsible entity for controlling foreign inflows of coronavirus.
- When it comes to potential travel restrictions, only the federal government is able to identify geographic transmission routes across state boundaries that might need to be targeted with temporary travel bans.
- Zheng offers: “As an example, New York and Florida have approximately equal population sizes, but the number of identified coronavirus infections is more than 15 times larger in the former. It would therefore be more effective to shut down travel into Florida as opposed to into New York, even if the travel volumes between the two states are the same. Only the federal government can impose such restrictions.”
- The same logic goes for allocation of medical resources: “Free, decentralized market mechanisms fail in settings of extreme scarcity where the goal is to save as many lives as possible.”