Managing a pandemic with Ron Klain and NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly

On May 1, Meridian hosted White House Ebola Response Coordinator (2014-15) Ron Klain for virtual Insights@Meridian to discuss the steps that the U.S. and international community are taking to manage the pandemic, with a focus on lessons learned from his time at the White House. The former Chief of Staff for Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore also discussed approaches for future cooperation on global health and national security. Moderated by the host of NPR’s All Things Considered, Mary Louise Kelly, the conversation also examined the potential impacts of the pandemic on the upcoming presidential election.  

Below are the top takeaways from the conversation 

1. AN UNPRECEDENTED BUT NOT UNEXPECTED CHALLENGE. The United States had ample warning of the threat posed by COVID-19 yet failed to act and prepare accordingly— and the problems we face will continue to plague us in the months to come. “Saying that we didn’t do nothing is not a success,” Klain stressed, noting the importance of developing a more effective plan both domestically and globally to move forward and defeat this virus. 

2. AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD. While Klain believes the U.S. response to COVID-19 has betrayed “American exceptionalism,” the U.S. can and must resume its role as a global leader in pandemic response. Comparing the U.S. response to COVID-19 with its response to the Ebola crisis, Klain highlighted how the U.S. was the leading non-African nation to contribute to the defeat of the Ebola crisis. Thousands of civilians and U.S. troops were deployed to fight this epidemic and while the local community is largely responsible for its defeat, strong support from the global community played a significant role. An opportunity for the U.S. to lead as a global partner and support U.S. allies around the world, according to Klain, is by calling on USAID and by assisting countries in developing their own institutions, like the Africa CDC.

3.PANDEMICS KNOW NO BORDERS. The virus will threaten all countries until it is extinguished everywhere, and global cooperation is required to ensure its defeat. As White House Ebola Response Coordinator (2014-15), Ron Klain knows what a coordinated international response to a global pandemic should look like. Referencing an idea first put forward by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2015, Klain proposed the creation of an organized global entity that would provide a combination of security and medical response as one possible international mechanism to effectively fight future pandemics.

4. AMERICA WILL REMAIN A CONSUMER-DRIVEN ECONOMY. “As we start to restore more economic activity, it’s not an on and off switch, it’s more like a dimmer switch,” Klainstated when discussing how the reopening of the economy will occur gradually. It will be neither the government nor the business sector, but consumers who will decide when and how the economy will return. Policy and business leaders must be conscious of consumers’ health concerns when reopening and adjust to meet those concerns. Business leaders who are more cautious will learn that being careful and safety-centric when reopening will be the most successful.

5. A LOOK TO FUTURE LEADERSHIP. Having served as Chief of Staff for Vice President Joe Biden and a current Biden campaign advisor, Klain confidently expressed that if elected, Biden will have an effective plan on how to deal with this crisis. Additionally, Biden's vision when it comes to selecting a Vice President involves identifying someone with the qualities necessary to be a partner and take on significant responsibilities in governing. Biden pledged early-on to select a female running mate — a promise he intends on keeping, according to Klain. On the topic of November’s election, Klainreiterated the need to make vote by mail accessible to all American citizens, a view shared by Governors McAuliffe and Kasich in last month’s Insights@Meridian conversation.

To read more on Meridian's response to COVID-19, click here. 

Project summary

Managing a pandemic with Ron Klain and NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly | May 2020
Number of Attendees: 103
Regions: Africa, East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, Western Hemisphere
Countries: Australia, Colombia, Croatia, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Singapore, South Korea
Impact Areas: Foreign Policy, Global Health
Program Areas: Convening