The COVID-19 pandemic seemingly came out of the blue for most of us, and it’s clear that the country was not prepared for it.
In fact, our response to this threat clearly indicated to me that dealing with infectious diseases was not only something not being thought about by our government, but something not prioritized. Although there had been some previous thought and planning for dealing with a pandemic (started during the Bush Administration believe it or not), overall dealing with infectious diseases and health in general is not something our country seems to care a great deal about.
How do I know this? Budgets.
Looking at budget numbers clearly show priority of some things over others, but one thing really stands out.
Which is more important, our health or our safety?
Do we want to be healthy or safe, or both?
One could say if you are not healthy and alive then the need to be safe is secondary. On the other hand, if you are not safe then your health may be irrelevant.
So, which is it, our health or our safety?
Our Health or Our Safety
Before we jump into the numbers, what do you think? What should be the priority, health or safety, or both?
Well, the fact is that the costs of keeping us safe are enormous compared to keeping us alive by protecting from diseases.
The annual defense budget is nearly two trillion dollars compared to just $52 billion for human health services.
In other words, the health services budget is less than 1% of the defense budget.
We all spend our money based on our priorities, and it’s clear where America’s priorities are.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a robust defense budget, but less than 1%? The fact is, when it comes to health services the funding for the essential programs that keep us healthy often take a back seat.
But let’s play devils advocate for a moment. Maybe the discrepancy in these budgets has resulted in more lives saved or better outcomes for our country.
We need to try to get a sense of the rate of return or the effects of the spending in these categories during the last two decades.
What have been the cost of wars and other defense-related actions and the funding for Human Health Services?
Let’s us look at the spending in real dollars as well as human cost!
The Cost of the Wars and Defense
According to Congressional Research Services, since the 9/11 attacks the U.S. has spent well over one and a half trillion funding wars. Additionally, there are non-war expenditures included in defense expenses.
Obligations of those amounts peaked during two surges of U.S. military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, which amounted to more than $47 billion.
In addition, Overseas Contingency Operations cost a total of $784 billion in just the last three to four years.
In sum, billions and billions are spent every year for maintaining military bases, coalition supports, re-construction costs, and other indirect military and defense operations around the world to support the Global War on Terrorism. That doesn’t include all the money spent here at home on security and military.
Now, what about the priceless loss of lives?
As of the end of year 2019, approximately 6,967 U.S. servicemen and women have died during OCO/GWOT operations since the 9/11 attack. A further 52,802 have been wounded.
Total casualties of war and defense efforts are approximately 60,000 over the last two decades.
Clearly these efforts have saved lives, but it’s also cost them.
The Cost of Human Health Services
Infectious diseases have been always present since the beginning of the human existence and have wiped out a large portion of the population on several occasions. They can catch anyone at any time.
Luckily, we’ve developed many vaccines and treatments for these diseases, as we will eventually do with COVID-19.
Despite the confidence that we will develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, it’s almost a certainty that we will continue to face infectious diseases in the future.
The big question is are we ready fight future infectious diseases? Do we have a plan to contain or prevent the spread of disease? Are we going to wake up and declare war against future pandemics?
Most of us are actively experiencing the impact of a pandemic on our health and personal finances. The economic impact on our personal finances when such things happen is quite evident.
We could safely say that, money invested in human health is money earned by protecting us from financial crisis due to infectious diseases.
The big question is are we spending enough to prevent infectious disease that can attack anytime now or in the future? More importantly, what is the added cost for not spending enough to prevent or contain infectious disease?
The recent pandemic has shown that being prepared coupled with good practices prevented the spread of the virus during the last few months.
Countries who invested money in preventing infectious diseases have proven that the spread of the virus can be contained.
For example, Taiwan had only seven deaths. They had a budget to prepare for fighting infectious diseases for the last several years. They had sufficient personal protective equipment in stock during the Covid-19 spread. In addition, their citizens were well educated on how to deal with such a crisis.
They respected the advice of medical experts.
Are we prepared to deal with future pandemics? Let us take a look at what our nation is doing.
Funding for National Human Health Services
Just in the last two years the CDC budget has lost $10 billion in funding, from $62 to $52 billion. Likewise, the 2021 budget has an almost ten percent reduction in HHS (Health and Human Services) funding.
This is not a good formula for fighting the war against infectious diseases. Such reductions in funding could also reduce our ability to contribute to the global health initiatives, which means fewer breakthroughs in vaccines and treatments.
But budget cuts haven’t stopped there. Here are some others that also limit the country’s preparedness for fighting infectious diseases (from Harvard Univ/CDC Budget).
- $200 million reduction to the Bio Shield Fund, which prepares medical counter measures such as stocking medical supplies (PPE, vaccines, medicines, etc.)
- $25 million reduction to the CDC’s public health preparedness and response programs
- $85 million reduction to funding for emerging infectious diseases, which includes a $33 million cut to the CDC’s antibiotic resistance initiative as well as elimination of the CDC’s epidemiology and lab capacity program and health care-associated infections program
- A proposed $18 million reduction in funding for the preparedness for emergencies such as the Covid-19 outbreak
That seems like a lot, but when you add the numbers these reductions represent less than 1% of the defense budget. Are these savings really worth it?
One would think the war on health is as important as the war on terror, especially when the current pandemic has already claimed more lives than the past two-decades of war-related casualties (currently 168k people have died from Covid-19 in the U.S.).
And remember, these numbers only include organizations and programs related to infectious diseases, not chronic diseases or mental health.
Taken together, the Department of Human Health Services budget is less than 1% of the defense budget, for all health-related programs!
Moral of the Story
Clearly, our country prioritizes war and defense over the health of it’s citizens, and that prioritization is showing up in a bad way during this pandemic.
Every citizen is vulnerable to infectious diseases. Furthermore, the inability to contain the disease has resulted in loss of jobs, closure of small businesses, and the inability to work regularly, affecting the health of our finances as well.
Jeopardizing our national security is not the answer, but it’s highly likely we could streamline the defense budget and find a few billion to further support human health services.
Every dollar we take from the National Human Health Fund is making us more vulnerable to current and future health crises.
There are lives lost at war and lives lost with pandemics, but the latter is clearly in the lead and it isn’t even a contest.
Healthy humans are healthy workers, which leads to more productivity, a better economy, lower medical costs, and of course less infectious diseases.
It’s time we stopped thinking about our health or our safety and started thinking about how our health is our safety. It’s time to treat human health services as one of the top priorities of our nation.
Talk about lives saved and money well spent.
Sebastian is co-blogger at Money Saved is Money Earned. He emigrated from India in his 20's with $15 in his pocket. Despite facing adversity in his early life, Sebastian is an early retired Senior Financial Analyst for the City of Portland. He has owned his home free and clear for 15 years, has had income properties, put three kids through college, and travels to India regularly, all without a six figure income.