President Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act. Here’s what that means.

President Donald Trump speaks during press briefing with the Coronavirus Task Force at the White House, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

President Donald J. Trump on Tuesday invoked the Defense Production Act to help prevent the U.S. healthcare system from being overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Trump’s move will make use of the act to produce about 60,000 COVID-19 test kits, as well as 500 million personal protective masks, according to Peter Gaynor, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Defense Production Act, enacted in 1950 at the start of the Korean War, enables the president to require companies to produce goods necessary for national defense.

Stephen Flynn is founding director of the Global Resilience Institute and professor of political science in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities at Northeastern. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“The most seminal event in our lifetimes is unfolding right now,” said Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern, who served as a national security and Homeland Security advisor to four presidential administrations on both sides of the aisle.. “The scale of this emergency, the potential loss of life, and the disruption to our society—specifically to the most vulnerable populations—translates into the need for government at all levels to do everything it can to respond.” 

Flynn believes the response to COVID-19 should emulate the American reaction to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to national drives that generated weapons, medical supplies, and other materials that enabled the U.S. to prevail in World War II. 

The Global Resilience Institute last week produced a free, universally-accessible online class that provides scientifically-proven methods for managing the pandemic.

“Society has to be engaged in an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Flynn said. “We’re trying to do this in our modest way by getting out the kind of information that can help people be safe and make others safe.”

Trump previously had held off requiring the production of medical equipment because, he said, he doesn’t wish to “nationalize” American businesses. 

But Flynn says that the Defense Production Act in no way serves as a vehicle for taking control of companies.

“The federal government has the explicit authority to put the country on a wartime footing, the most important of which—going back to the analogy with Pearl Harbor—is to direct the private sector to meet societal needs,” Flynn says. “The Defense Production Act is one of those important tools.”

The act offers protection to companies as they adapt to the global crisis, Flynn said.

“For the duration of the emergency, it provides the government with the capacity to prioritize what should be produced in order to meet emergency needs,” he said. “Companies are going to have to pivot to meet those needs. They want some confidence that this is a real emergency, and there are protections that make it very easy for an executive to explain to shareholders why there may be disruption. There is some obligation on the government’s part that the companies will be made whole for undertaking this action.”

The predicament is dire, said Flynn. 

“This almost certainly is going to overwhelm our healthcare system,” Flynn said. “We have an inadequate amount of tests and ventilators, and we need to direct companies to step up. But those companies need the confidence that the government is taking ownership contractually when they throw out all the stops and take on the potential economic risk.”

Flynn hopes that other public figures will join him in calling for Trump to continue responding to the looming emergency. 

“We’ve already lost almost six weeks of time that ideally would have been used to begin this mobilization effort,” Flynn said. “We need as many opinion leaders and people with a national security background to make it clear that we are in this Pearl Harbor-like moment—that this is as much of a national emergency as any that this nation has faced since World War II. And we’ve got to start treating it that way.”

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