Our federal government should immediately nationalize production of the medical supplies Americans need.
Since late January, cities like ours have been preparing for the painful realities of the coronavirus: We will be fighting for months, not weeks. We will lose people. And we could face a shortage of medical supplies that compounds both of those realities.
We are in a war-time scenario.
But the Trump administration is approaching this crisis with a Mar-a-Lago attitude. Two weeks ago, the president called concerns about the administration's reaction to the virus “a hoax.” The Food and Drug Administration put us miles behind other countries on mass testing. And as cities like ours plan for the long term, the Trump administration still hasn’t shown a plan to get us the medical supplies we need.
We're asking for the federal government's help
New York City has called on the federal government to supply us with more ventilators, N-95 masks, surgical masks and hand sanitizer. Every single one would save lives and slow the spread of the virus. Yet in each case, the federal government has told us they cannot meet our demand. (Or, in the case of hand sanitizer, they don’t have it in the national stockpile to begin with.)
It’s time for a radical step. Just as the federal government did in World War I, World War II and other extraordinary moments, the Trump administration should nationalize the production and distribution of the medical supplies the American people need. Every company and industry that can possibly produce and distribute more ventilators, masks and hand sanitizer should be doing that around the clock.
Here’s how that might look. It could involve a federal government stimulus to get every out-of-work factory back up and running, hiring workers to churn out these critical provisions. It might mean significant government contracts awarded to any company that can produce these supplies. And at its most extreme, it could mean the government temporarily taking over one of these companies, deciding how many supplies should be produced and where to send them.
It’s time for dramatic measures. And while these companies are incentivized right now to make more supplies, the federal government can take a lot of steps to push us even further.
Think about the difference that would make. With more ventilators, we can better care for the vulnerable people with respiratory issues that the coronavirus preys on. With more masks, we can protect our health care workers and first responders on the front lines. With more hand sanitizer, we can help people in every city take the basic precaution of keeping their hands clean that has proven to be so important in this crisis. There are lives on the line.
It's not as though this hasn't been done before
We aren’t asking for the world. In New York City, we believe we have the best public health system in the world and our Emergency Management team is carefully managing our own supply inventory. But we also have 8.6 million people who live closely together and a novel virus with confirmed cases growing by the day. Our supplies — as well as those in other cities — will inevitably be stretched. And for all of our strengths, we fundamentally do not have the same scale or power that the federal government does to get them mass-produced.
There’s precedent to do something like this. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew he needed to ramp up the production of supplies immediately. He declared a national emergency and said the government would use “all of its power … to prevent interference with the production of materials essential to our nation’s security.”
Within a month, he’d nationalized a company that produced military airplanes and kept going by nationalizing Midwest trucking operators to move supplies, coal mines to generate power around the clock and, most famously, giant retailer Montgomery Ward which supplied the war effort with everything from tractors to auto parts to workmen’s clothes.
It is time for our federal government to take a similar step. Nationalize the production and distribution of the necessary medical supplies. Make sure our companies are working around the clock to develop and distribute supplies. Make sure our people have what they need in this crisis.
To President Trump: You were late in taking this seriously. You were late on recognizing the realities of testing for this virus. But you can still deliver help to millions of New Yorkers and Americans who desperately need it, starting right now.
This is wartime. It’s about time you started acting like it.
Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @NYCMayor