Government Responses in a Time of Pandemic: Principles That Guide Us

Public Health

Government Responses in a Time of Pandemic: Principles That Guide Us


Foundational principles that guide The Heritage Foundation’s work in a time of pandemic

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, The Heritage Foundation brings an array of knowledge and expertise in a wide range of policy areas. This work is being utilized at the highest levels of government, in the media, and among the public policy community.

As we analyze the latest developments and formulate policy solutions, it’s important to have a set of foundational principles that guide our work.

  • The federal government’s first priority should be to assemble a whole-of-government approach to control and mitigate the introduction and spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in order to protect the public health of the American people. A whole-of-government approach brings together all levels—federal, state, local—and functional elements of government—economic, diplomatic, military, homeland security and national health—in a cohesive manner directed toward a common goal.
  • The administration’s primary goal should be to ensure the health and wellbeing of Americans, working in tandem with state and local public health officials in their efforts to address the pandemic. Key responsibilities are to provide leadership, conduct strategic communications, offer overall public health guidance based on factual information from national medical and public health experts, eliminate federal regulations that would slow or prevent the development and distribution of vaccines and treatments, develop national economic priorities, and provide public health-supporting resources.
  • Because of the geographic size and population of the United States, decisions about specific infection-control policies such as “shelter in place,” isolation and “lockdown” quarantine orders are best left to state governors and local officials who, in consultation with public health professionals, have a more complete understanding of the situation and needs in their communities. Restrictions should be carefully managed at the appropriate level, with decisions based on the current and anticipated situation, guided by expert advice from all relevant disciplines. The federal government shall be responsible for international and domestic travel restrictions.
  • Preserving both life and liberty are two of the most foundational principles and balancing those two goals is the challenge before us. With these goals in mind, policymakers should make those decisions necessary to minimize the number of lives lost from COVID-19. Officials will always be hampered by imperfect knowledge in these situations, but they must properly weigh the risks of their actions to all members of the population to avoid worsening the human costs of an epidemic. The business community needs to see a viable path forward to plan responsibly for the interests of the Americans who depend on them. Policymakers must therefore relentlessly pursue those elements of information that will allow them to understand when the imposition of stringent infection control measures are no longer necessary. Reopening the economy, critical to our way of life, will likely need to take place on a regional or state basis, versus nationwide. Some parts of infection control, such as refraining from handshakes and more frequent handwashing, should become part of a new normal for the foreseeable future.