America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been, among other things, a colossal failure of federalism. Our governments and we as citizens have fallen far short of the demands of the moment.


Other nations have taken strong, painful and short-term steps to successfully get the virus under control. We chose otherwise, despite the advantage of seeing other examples overseas and having more time to prepare than many other countries did.


Federalism carries the idea that different levels of government, reflecting different constituencies and different aims, can address issues in their own way, even when that means those parties often work at cross purposes. It’s messy, though over the long term it can be effective for sorting out which policies work and which don’t.


But it’s wholly inadequate in a national crisis.


The White House has passed the buck and tried to change the subject from day one. States with essentially passive government, Missouri included, have done little better. Gov. Mike Parson’s often-stated reliance on personal responsibility is a formula for failure, and that’s how it’s played out. More than 1,000 Missourians have died from this disease, and we’re experiencing a surge in cases that was largely avoidable with prudent and reasonable steps. Missouri, at the state level, still mandates neither face masks nor even social distancing.


Local governments in Jackson County deserve credit for doing what they can.


The fundamentally flawed choices have included caving to political pressure and lifting stay-at-home orders before substantial contact tracing was in place, as well as resting the overall pandemic response in the idea that nearly everyone would magically do the right and responsible thing. It is said that hope is not a plan, and in that sense Missouri has no plan.


Just weeks ago there was an unbelievable notion in the air that the crisis had magically passed, despite all that is known about the spread of contagious disease and despite the half-hearted attempts to get out in front of this virus. The political pressure to pretend the crisis was over and normality had returned was and remains enormous. The desire to lift restrictions on businesses is obvious and understandable.


But wishing doesn’t make it so, and numbers are rising significantly in Missouri and most others states.


In addition to social distancing and just staying home, the preventative measure of choice at the moment is the face mask. Just as most Americans support and have played by the new rules all along, there’s evidence that even in Missouri more people are coming around to understand the need for masks. But there are always massive numbers of holdouts – the ones choosing to put others at risk.


Encouraging or requiring masks seems like the most palatable alternative to the resumption of stay-at-home orders. But will that lower COVID numbers enough to avoid deeper economic pain? Or enough for schools to open in a few weeks? If not, we’re looking at more social disruption.


Our deferred decisions are piling up problems ahead, and needlessly so.