With the US federal government shutdown now the longest in history, it’s important to understand what a shutdown means for the health and safety of Americans.
The good news is that in the short run, the consequences are relatively few. But, as a researcher who studies natural disaster planning, I believe that Americans should be worried about the federal government’s long-term ability to ensure good public health and protect the public from disasters.
As the shutdown draws on, it increasingly weakens the government’s ability to protect Americans down the road, long after federal workers are allowed to go back to work. Many of these effects are largely invisible and may feel intangible because they don’t currently affect specific individuals.
However, the shutdown poses a very real threat to preparedness for future emergencies, such as natural disasters and disease outbreaks. It also damages the government’s ability to recruit and retain the experts needed to work at the cutting edge of public health.
Much funding for disaster recovery that is already underway is funded in appropriations separate from those that fund the shuttered parts of government.
On Dec. 26, however, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which contracts private contractors for a large share of their work, ordered its contractors to cease working on several projects. Even for programs with funding, progress is made difficult by a shortage of several thousand staff members.
When President Trump signaled to the Senate that he would not sign into law the appropriations bills that had passed the House, leading to the shutdown, funding with bipartisan support for disaster recovery died too. This impedes disaster relief efforts in the states that experienced disaster in the past two years. Among others, it leaves victims of the forest fires in California and victims of Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas waiting for crucial help needed to recover.