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Political hearings and commissions come and go in Washington, D.C. And in almost every case in the 21st century, hearings have been weaponized for political gain while largely consisting of rehearsed made-for-cable-news zingers that ultimately amount to sound and fury signifying nothing.
The 9/11 Commission was an exception, however. Created in 2002 one year after the terrorist attacks, it was bipartisan and had a vested interest not to make one party or the other look bad. Its objective was to learn how the attacks happened and to prevent another massive terror attack from occurring on U.S. soil again.
The commission was chaired by former Gov. Tom Kean (R-N.J.) and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), men who had the respect of those across the aisle.
More than 3,000 Americans died on 9/11, the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. Two wars were launched in Afghanistan and Iraq as a result. No event since Sept. 11, 2001, has had such a profound effect on the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic that began three years ago.
Thirty-six months later, the death toll stands at more than 1.14 million Americans and more than 6.8 million people worldwide. Businesses were shut down; some never recovered. Schools were shuttered. Mental health issues, alcoholism, drug use and suicides skyrocketed from the isolation and lack of interaction with family and friends. And on the political front, a presidential election was decided largely because of the issue overwhelming the country in November 2020.
So, it would only make sense, even in these hopelessly divided times, for a COVID-19 commission to be formed in the bipartisan, sober spirit of the 9/11 Commission.
There are so many questions that need to be answered, or at least explored.
Did COVID come from a bat in a wet market in Wuhan? Or did it come from the Wuhan respiratory coronavirus lab that studies bat coronaviruses through gain of function research? Both the FBI and the Department of Energy now say it likely came from the latter.
If the origin is question number one, then a close second must be a serious investigation into the response here in the United States, and the draconian shutdowns that did so much damage to the country. This was especially true of school children, who were vastly overprotected despite being at the lowest risk of serious illness.
Looking ahead, should we emulate Sweden if another pandemic occurs? You may recall that Swedish schools and businesses closed only briefly before reopening. Restaurants were never closed (while thousands ended up going out of business here in the States).
For this, major U.S. news outlets treated Sweden with scorn and mockery in the spring of 2020. What was the final result of not shutting down? Per a 2021 report by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, researchers concluded through extensive data that among 11 large and wealthy nations, only Sweden had no excess mortality among people under age 75.
Kaiser also found that “among similarly large and wealthy countries, the U.S. had among the highest excess mortality rates in 2020, and younger people were more likely to have died due to the pandemic in the U.S. than younger people in other countries.”
With this kind of data, will the U.S. change course in responding if another kind of virus is unleashed on the world? It might depend on what state you live in. Florida reopened in June 2020, while California just ended its COVID emergency on Feb. 28.
Another area for the hypothetical commission to explore is the effectiveness of masks.
At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci first told “60 Minutes” that masks weren’t needed. (He later explained that was to prevent a run on masks needed for doctors and hospitals.) One month later, he said one mask was recommended. And late in 2020, Fauci advocated wearing two masks.
But are masks even effective in protecting humans from a novel coronavirus?
“There is just no evidence that they make any difference. Full stop,” Oxford epidemiologist Tom Jefferson concluded after he and 11 colleagues completed the most rigorous and extensive review of mask wearing to date.
If that’s the case, Jefferson, when asked why Dr. Fauci and other government medical advisers ultimately recommended masks, argued that governments had “bad advisors from the very beginning” who looked at “flawed observation studies.”
“A lot of it had to do with appearing as if they were doing something,” he added.
As Pulitzer-winning columnist Bret Stevens put it in reaction to the Cochrane review, “doing something is not science.”
Millions died. The impact of long Covid on millions more remains. Our children’s test scores fell to their lowest level in 30 years. Some people lost their businesses and everything they ever worked for.
Hard questions and definitive answers are needed on the most consequential global event of our lifetime. And if ever a commission was needed that is run not by grandstanders or staunch partisans but by respected and retired lawmakers, a COVID-19 commission is certainly it.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.