New York is finally ahead of the coronavirus, but its outbreak stands as a world-wide horror story. A sophisticated city was caught unprepared and suffered some of the worst levels of infection and death. The need for an investigation is clear. The harder question is who can credibly take the lead.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio were too involved to be impartial. The state Legislature is too partisan. Federal agencies would be seen as carrying water for the White House. Prosecutors are trained to judge criminality, not public-health policy. New York should look outside government for a truly independent probe.

Instead of waiting for the governor to appoint a commission, the state’s universities, civic groups and think tanks should organize one of their own. Their best minds will be studying the pandemic anyway. Those efforts would have more influence if private groups combined forces.

In addition to taking more than 30,000 lives, the virus has damaged the city’s identity. Busy streets, crowded subways and thronging tourists have become suspected vectors of infection. New York needs to show the world that it has learned from its mistakes and is ready to control the next outbreak.

Consider the Cuomo administration’s March 25 order, reported by The Wall Street Journal, which compelled nursing homes to accept infected patients. It appears to have made a bad situation worse.

A fair-minded assessment of that decision seems unlikely to come from Mr. Cuomo, who rejects all criticism of his move as partisan theater. An independent commission could give this a full exploration.

The panel would have a lot of ground to cover, starting with why New York was so extremely vulnerable. If international travelers brought the virus and urban density and mass transit spread it, then why did comparable cities such as Hong Kong and Seoul escape relatively unscathed?

Another area for examination is surveillance. It’s clear the virus was festering in New York for weeks before the first case was spotted. What warning signs did the state’s public-health monitors miss? Do they have the tools to spot the clues next time?

Mr. Cuomo will probably impanel a commission and fill it with people who need to stay in his good graces. His office will micromanage the whole thing. An outside watchdog could keep that process honest.

The group would need an anchor, perhaps a school of public health or a foundation that focuses on health. It should draw from a cross-section of organizations and individuals with varying expertise and points of view. It should seek input from government and the health-care system but be free to draw its own conclusions. It should focus on learning lessons rather than casting blame.

The political system that presided over a public-health disaster is about to stumble its way into the post-coronavirus future. New Yorkers who are outside government can either stand by and watch or step up and lead.

Mr. Hammond is director of health policy at the Empire Center.

© 2020 Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Bill Hammond

As the Empire Center’s senior fellow for health policy, Bill Hammond tracks fast-moving developments in New York’s massive health care industry, with a focus on how decisions made in Albany and Washington affect the well-being of patients, providers, taxpayers and the state’s economy.

Read more by Bill Hammond

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