Federalism and COVID-19 Response in the United States

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The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has provoked unprecedented attention to federalism in the United States and other federal-based systems, such as Mexico, India, and Germany. The US’s federal system assigns power to multiple government levels, mainly national, state, and local administrations. The established structure creates autonomous control levels, which act directly for the people through recognized authority. Federalism is a central aspect of the US public health system in which response to COVID-19 depends on state or federal governments’ power. The pandemic does not respect geographical boundaries, exposing the federalist governance’s approach weaknesses in times of crisis. Based on traditional federalism, the national government can make policy in some situations, whereas states reserve the right to control other areas.

However, COVID-19 has disclosed the ambiguity of constitutional boundaries between national and state administrations. Consequently, the political decision to manage the pandemic in the US represents a different sovereignty structure contrary to what the nation’s founders contemplated. Although federalism encourages sovereignty between national, state, and local governments, COVID-19 has exposed its benefits and drawbacks, including the administrative levels’ inability to combat the pandemic alone.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Federalism During COVID-19

Foremost, federalism has inherent advantages, which help in combating the COVID 19 pandemic. It enables states to act independently to address disasters without the national government’s input. The US federal regime delayed in announcing a vibrant, nationwide strategy to mitigate the healthcare crisis. As a result, states took charge by using the constitutional authority to implement mitigation policies and reduce infection rates. State and local officers relied on the undelegated police power reserved by the Tenth Amendment to close schools and non-essential businesses (Kincaid and Leckrone 48). They also issued stay-at-home guidelines, directed suspensions on evictions, and dispersed emergency coupons for buying foodstuffs.

However, the federal government promotes intervention measures during pandemics by declaring a national emergency, which empowers states to implement specific, short-term decrees, such as prohibiting mass gatherings. Federal funding enhances states and local authorities’ capacity to combat disasters. According to Gordon et al., a federal system has benefits such as the elasticity to modify responses based on the unique features of target audiences, adjust state budgets, and assess new policies. Hence, flexibility enables state administrations to execute independent authority and forge individual response pathways in the absence of national leadership.

Conversely, federalism has significant disadvantages, which have derailed COVID-19 response in the country. State and federal governments’ independence breeds inequality regarding their approach to healthcare issues. Huberfeld et al. explain postulate that national systems leave social program recipients at the mercy of state leaders’ honesty, competence, and judgment (954). Thus, individual state policies make citizens vulnerable to different degrees of COVID-19 infections and adverse socioeconomic impacts. For instance, Mississippi demonstrates how a retrogressive approach to policymaking subjects residents to adverse socioeconomic outcomes.

The state has limited Medicaid eligibility based on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) despite its high poverty level. Subsequently, it is at risk of closing over half of the hospitals due to devastating numbers of uncompensated medical care. Moreover, Delta‘s residents face severe healthcare and COVID-19 economic shocks because of the state’s policy choices (Huberfeld et al. 954). Altercation between Trump’s administration and governors regarding the former’s claim to have absolute and total power to override the latter’s decisions exacerbate federalism’s faultiness. The lack of collaboration between the state and federal governments aggravates federalism’s drawbacks, which frustrates efforts to combat the pandemic.

The drawbacks underpin accountability challenges posed to federalism by the pandemic as a leading principle to solve public policy problems. Rozell and Wilcox explain that democracy is based on the responsibility standards: people may compensate or penalize elected officers depending on their performance in office (86). Obligation implies that voters can identify responsible officials when policies succeed or fail. However, a complex, multilayered federal system makes it difficult for electorates to recognize liable persons in case of failures or uncertainty. In this regard, the federal government is usually guilty of bad policy outcomes. Selin exemplifies that COVID-19 response has raised significant liability issues for both administration levels in the US.

Although the federal administration has expanded executive authority, it lacks the resources to meet all needs. Thus, it relies on the states to undertake vital tasks. Nonetheless, voters cannot know whom to blame when both regimes operate within the same policy space in case of failure. For example, the president blames unidentified administrators, while governors accuse Trump’s administration of the slow response to COVID-19. As a result, voters wonder why the regime seems dysfunctional at a time when they need it the most.

Challenges to Federalism Caused by the Pandemic

Additionally, the pandemic has posed distinct partnership challenges to federalism by aggravating national and state authorities’ disconnection. Federal-state relation, usually aggressive, is the most noticeable but upsetting aspect of American federalism. Rozell and Wilcox assert that the bitter exchanges date back to Clinton’s administration, which sparked intense resentment and acrimony between state and federal authorities (540). Trump’s regime has aggravated the acrimonious association magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The current fallout amongst leading parties is the worst; strategies to bring the country back to some sense of normalcy remain futile. Rozell and Wilcox argue that it is easy to identify the intensified tension and schisms by watching bulletin related to the virus (539). The pandemic fuels partisan polarization and renders national officials reluctant or incapable of addressing persistent issues, leaving states or local administrations to resolve them. For instance, Trump claimed that the federal government is a “backup” to state and local authorities (Rozell and Wilcox argue 541). The assertion attracted substantial reproach from governors. The detachment has worsened due to the lack of the much-needed assertive leadership to combat the virus.

States and Government in Addressing the Pandemic

The unique challenges posed to federalism in the US indicate that states cannot eliminate the pandemic alone. State authorities rely on the federal government for resources, mainly during times of economic recessions. According to Siripurapu and Masters, state and local governments can only raise revenue or cut spending when managing budget deficits with excessive magnitude. Some states cannot borrow for routine expenses, while others need voter consent. Thus, the federal government becomes vital under stringent conditions to bail out state and local administrations. It distributes grants and decentralizes or share responsibility for particular functions.

Moreover, it offers state incentives and subsidies to help in improving their financial reserves (Siripurapu and Masters). In this regard, states are experiencing an economic downturn despite being the cornerstone to combat COVID-19. Hence, they must work with the federal government under the disaster relief and recovery plan to acquire essentials. The national administration provides state and local managements with resources, such as life-saving medical provisions and direct assistance to families and small businesses. Supply constraints imply that states cannot work alone to fight the pandemic without the federal administration’s help.

On the other hand, the federal government cannot work alone to combat COVID-19 without states’ assistance. States play a significant function in a traditional public health setting in the US; they are closer to people compared to national administrators. Besides, each state has a different socio-cultural, economic, and political setup, which might be misaligned with America’s mainstream culture. Thus, federal policies or interventions must be customized to address the unique aspects to reflect state and local situations (Altman 305). In this regard, the national administration assigns primary responsibility to states to devolve authority and obligation during a national disaster. The approach aligns with conventional principles, which allow state and local regimes to tailor solutions based on homegrown environments (Altman 305).

Additionally, the federal government needs the private sector’s input to enhance its efficiency, resilience, and robustness in service delivery. For instance, educational leaders and scientists collaborate to design high-performance and powerful computing resources and support COVID-19 research. State and individual players are necessary when distributing the vaccine since the delivery system is customized to local architecture (Altman 305). Thus, the federal government cannot work in isolation to address the pandemic without states’ support.

The federal and state governments’ inability to work independently in mitigating COVID-19 indicates that each level has limits in this crisis. State administrators face resource constraints based on financial and human capital perspectives. The current response architecture places a substantial burden on states to implement policies to slow infection rates in the country from the local level. They are also accountable for synchronizing and funding pandemic mitigation efforts based on federalism observed in the public healthcare system.

Furthermore, state authorities are the main financiers of local intervention strategies, including acquiring personal protective equipment (PPEs), launching quarantine sites, boosting medical care disbursements to healthcare facilities, and tracing coronavirus cases. Moreover, states do not have the resource capacity to support large-scale projects, such as saving collapsing businesses or offering unemployment relief. The activities have dwindled states’ financial resources, thereby leaving them at the mercy of the federal regime. Thus, they depend on the federal management for additional funding to meet monetary obligations related to financing COVID-19 initiatives. The constraint compels states to be a significant component of the governance system under the federalist concept.

Conversely, the federal government has limited authority over states regarding the extent to which it can influence their decisions. For instance, Kincaid and Leckrone allude that the president does not have express power to issue stay-at-home directives (49). However, he can prohibit immigrants from entering the US or block state boundaries to stop interstate coronavirus infections. Despite the ability to declare such prohibitions, he cannot order states to reopen learning institutions, eateries, or restaurants. The central administration also lacks the authority to implement and manage a consolidated pandemic response mechanism.

In addition, the disconnect between the national and state administrations limits the former’s ability to exercise oversight over the latter’s management of relief funds. As a result, it is not easy to evaluate and ascertain the use of grants and other resources advanced to state and local authorities. In other cases, the federal administration cannot influence states’ decisions regarding COVID-19 response measures. For instance, Kincaid and Leckrone reveal that governors closed the US economy based on the police power (48). Trump’s attempt to reopen the economy faced criticism from governors, Congress members, and constitutional intellectuals. The federal government’s inability to interfere with states’ policies signifies the former’s limits in addressing the pandemic under federalism.

Role of Politics in the Crisis

The limits experienced by state and federal administrations underpin the significance of political influence in governing the crisis. The onset of the pandemic stimulated heated political debates concerning the best way to address it. Governments implemented prompt policies, including restricting domestic and international travel, issuing stay-at-home orders, encouraging social distancing, and closing non-essential business.

However, the events triggered fierce political debates creating heightened tension between state authorities and the federal government. Consequently, the political divide contributes to diverse views regarding the government’s response to the crisis. A study by Christensen et al. in 2020 reveals that over half of Americans (55.2%) feel the government acted inadequately to combat COVID-19 (5). Liberals (70.8%) hold the most adverse opinion compared to conservatives (19.6%) (Christensen et al. 5). The bipartisan polarization also affects how the government responds to measures such as wearing masks. Unless the political environment changes for the better, combating coronavirus in the US remains disastrous.

Critical Issues for States and the Federal Government

Based on policy challenges and political implications, the most vital issues revolve around saving lives versus rescuing the US economy, while upholding constitutional mandates. On the one hand, controlling the spread of the virus limits its adverse economic effects. Research by Alvelda et al. indicates that averting economic mutilation begins with mitigating the pandemic that causes it. For example, China, New Zealand, and Singapore launched rapid COVID-19 suppression measures to address the virus first.

As a result, they started steadily reopening their economies in stages after controlling the pandemic. Conversely, nations that attempted to save the economy early suffered an unprecedented plunge. Federations such as the US, which focused on economic incentives and permitted the virus to spread, continue to struggle from unceasing community transmission. However, analysis by Smithson shows that saving lives versus rescuing the economy is a misleading comparison since data from forty-five countries show that there is no zero-sum choice between the variables. The mixed outcomes indicate federalism’s challenge regarding national and state governments’ role during a crisis and the false dichotomy of saving people’s lives or economy.


In conclusion, COVID-19 has ignited a contentious debate in the US due to its effect on federalism, a central aspect of the public healthcare system. A federal system implies that governing power is shared across multiple administrative levels, including national, state, and local supervisions. The onset of the pandemic revealed the benefits and drawbacks of federalism and the limits of state and national governments. States’ ability to act independently enabled them to act swiftly and implement mitigation measures even when the federal administration delayed making significant moves.

On the other hand, federalism promotes the autonomy of states to create and implement policies. Thus, inequalities amongst states subject vulnerable populations to socioeconomic adversities. Residents in states with limited resources do not access quality services, such as healthcare. Nonetheless, both administrations must collaborate since none can operate alone to eliminate the pandemic due to inherent limitations. For instance, states face resource constraints, which compel them to rely on the national government. Conversely, the latter has restricted power to influence the former’s policies. Despite the limits, both administrations must cooperate and addressing the emerging issue of whether saving lives should precede salvaging the economy.

Works Cited

Altman, Drew. “Understanding the US Failure on Coronavirus — an Essay by Drew Altman.” BMJ, vol. 370, 2020, p. 305-308.

Alvelda, Phillip et al. “To Save the Economy, Save People First.Ineteconomics. 2020. Web.

Benton, J. Edwin. “Challenges to Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations and Takeaways Amid the COVID-19 Experience.” The American Review of Public Administration, vol.50, no.6-7, 2020, pp.536-542.

Christensen, Sarah R., et al. “Political and Personal Reactions to COVID-19 During Initial Weeks of Social Distancing in the United States.” PloS One, vol.15, no.9, 2020, pp.1-16.

Gordon, Sarah H. et al. “What Federalism Means for the US Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019.JAMA Health Forum, vol. 1, no. 5, 2020. Web.

Huberfeld, Nicole et al. “Federalism Complicates the Response to the COVID-19 Health and Economic Crisis: What Can Be Done?” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, vol. 45, no. 6, 2020, pp. 951-965.

Kincaid, John, and J. Wesley Leckrone. “Federalism and the COVID-19 Crisis in the United States of America.” Revista” Cuadernos Manuel Giménez Abad”, vol. 19, 2020, pp. 48-49.

Rozell, Mark J., and Clyde Wilcox. Federalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2019.

Selin, Jennifer. “How the Constitution’s Federalist Framework is Being Tested by COVID-19.Brookings. 2020. Web.

Siripurapu, Anshu, and Jonathan Masters. “How COVID-19 is Harming State and City Budgets.Council on Foreign Relations. 2020. Web.

Smithson, Michael. “Data From 45 Countries Show Containing COVID vs. Saving the Economy is a False Dichotomy.” The Conversation. 2020. Web.

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"Federalism and COVID-19 Response in the United States." DemoEssays, 27 Dec. 2022, demoessays.com/federalism-and-covid-19-response-in-the-united-states/.


DemoEssays. (2022) 'Federalism and COVID-19 Response in the United States'. 27 December.


DemoEssays. 2022. "Federalism and COVID-19 Response in the United States." December 27, 2022. https://demoessays.com/federalism-and-covid-19-response-in-the-united-states/.

1. DemoEssays. "Federalism and COVID-19 Response in the United States." December 27, 2022. https://demoessays.com/federalism-and-covid-19-response-in-the-united-states/.


DemoEssays. "Federalism and COVID-19 Response in the United States." December 27, 2022. https://demoessays.com/federalism-and-covid-19-response-in-the-united-states/.