Vehicles line up at Jones Beach in Wantagh in January...

Vehicles line up at Jones Beach in Wantagh in January 2021, where people could get the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: James Carbone

Every year, we commemorate tragic events in our nation's history with ceremony, somber memorials, important lessons, and thoughtful discussion. But we regrettably have not properly recognized, remembered, and learned from what we experienced beginning just four years ago. More than 1.1 million Americans lost their lives to COVID-19. Millions more saw their lives altered in dramatic and sometimes permanent ways that still reverberate. 

We still haven't come to grips with any of it — and we're still not prepared for the next public health crisis or the next pandemic.

Monday's congressional hearing, which featured testimony from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was replete with disturbing antics and unnecessary political theatrics from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other Republicans, who chose performance over substance. It was a lost opportunity. Fauci, a respected, experienced public health professional, could have spent his time thoughtfully diagnosing what went right and what went wrong, evaluating how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled, and guiding the nation toward better preparedness.

Instead, Fauci was made a scapegoat, a target of threats and accusations rather than a public health expert from whom we could learn.

And we have a lot to learn. A lot went wrong.

We must find answers to valid questions and concerns regarding the origins of the virus in China, the communications breakdowns when federal agencies failed to consult one another or provided insufficient or conflicting guidance, and the decisions made in the pandemic's early days about social distancing, masking, and more. But even those analyses require context. We must recall and process the intense fear we rightly felt, as deaths mounted and public health professionals tried to do their best amid unfolding scientific understanding.

To anticipate what might happen next, we must fully understand what happened in the past. Federal lawmakers unfortunately still haven't funded broader studies and analysis, or established a national task force to investigate the pandemic, as proposed more than a year ago. The nation deserves a more thorough response.

We must somehow move past the misinformation and disinformation that has enveloped and divided us. The relatively speedy development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine likely saved millions of lives — but others were lost due to the continuing swirl of anti-vaccine rhetoric. How do we address that next time?

We should mourn for all we've lost. Paying tribute, individually and collectively, is part of our healing and our way forward. Then we must look ahead. Fauci rightly noted that we have lost talented public health professionals due to the politically fraught environment and threats he and others have received. We must value our scientists, researchers and physicians — and separate their work from the politics of the moment.

Without them, and without a true reckoning of what we've been through and where we're headed, we won't be ready for the public health challenges that await.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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