Why the Federal Government Needs to Lead on COVID-19

Michael Posner

By Michael Posner

By Michael Posner

Earlier this month, President Trump ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to lead the federal government’s effort to procure and distribute essential medical supplies nationwide to fight COVID-19. This makes sense given FEMA’s mandate to coordinate the government’s response to disasters that overwhelm local and state resources. For FEMA to succeed, it needs maximum authority and resources to do its job most effectively. To date, the President has not given FEMA and others in the federal government the power or resources necessary to fight this pandemic. 

Three things need to change. First and most immediately, there is a pressing need for greater coordination, burden-sharing, and transparency among the states. The federal government has the unique capacity to survey existing needs and distribute crucial supplies among the states in a rational and efficient way. Consulting with the nation’s governors, FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor and his supply chain task force need to provide a factual baseline for action based on public answers to these questions: what are the current and near-future national numerical needs for masks and other personal protective equipment, ventilators, and coronavirus testing equipment? What is the current availability of these essential items, either from national stockpiles or from private manufacturers? And when will additional supplies of these items be manufactured, by which companies, and when will they be available?  

Second, the President needs to invoke the Defense Production Act in earnest to mobilize the private sector to maximize production of the essential items both to ensure patient care and to protect healthcare providers. Adopted in 1950 during the Korean War, the Defense Production Act authorizes the federal government to direct U.S. industry to ramp up production of emergency provisions. It was created to give the federal government the power to prioritize and support the production of weapons of war. In the context of a devastating pandemic, it offers a powerful tool that needs to be deployed today to mobilize the private sector. In a conference call with the President last week, governors were seeking federal leadership to ensure the availability of the weapons their states need in the fight the coronavirus. Instead of taking the lead, the President told the governors to try to get the equipment they need themselves.

Read the full Forbes article.
Michael Posner is a Professor of Business and Society and Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.