Despite the very understandable impulse to move on from the pandemic, the pandemic hasn’t moved on from us, currently killing four hundred Americans a day and hospitalizing six thousand. But the disappearance of COVID from the list of political priorities has had another major side effect: the Biden administration is now moving to dismantle what few remaining public health measures exist in the United States to manage the virus, and with little opposition.
Earlier this week, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, Dr Ashish Jha, made a stunning announcement: the administration is planning to stop buying coronavirus vaccines, treatments, and tests by the end of this year. If carried out, it’ll be the latest and arguably most dramatic step by US officials to turn the US pandemic response wholly into a matter of individual responsibility, all while giving private insurers and Big Pharma a massive windfall. Jha made the announcement, fittingly, at an event sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in the last many months . . . is getting us out of that acute emergency phase where the US government is buying the vaccines, buying the treatments, buying the diagnostic tests,” Jha told the attendees. “My hope is that, in 2023, you’re going to see the commercialization of almost all of these products. Some of that is actually going to begin this fall, in the days and weeks ahead.”
This move would effectively mark the total privatization of the US pandemic response. Publicly funded vaccines, treatments, and tests — and, really, personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks — are the bare minimum of what a government should be providing amid a pandemic that’s killed more than 6 million people around the world. Yet these are exactly what the White House is now planning to gut, and just as we’re entering a fall and winter that Jha himself warned just three months ago could “see a pretty sizable wave of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.”
At the start of the pandemic, it was understood that the government had to take a leading role in purchasing and distributing these things to make sure they were accessible to all, even the poor and uninsured. The idea was that, if people found it too difficult to afford or get their hands on these things, it made everyone less safe by making the spread of the virus more likely, while also making catching it more deadly, with all the human and economic consequences that involves.
The Biden administration’s decision to cast aside that approach will have baleful consequences. If they go through with it, the COVID response will now be filtered through the United States’ dysfunctional, corporate-controlled, and inordinately expensive health care system, where roughly two in five are underinsured and 31 million have no insurance at all. Rather than a collective, public good, the pandemic response will now be wholly a profit-making venture, the same as staving off diabetes with insulin is, with Americans at the mercy of drugmakers, insurance companies, pharmacies, and more who are looking to make money, and plan to jack up prices to do it.
It’s hard to recall now, but once upon a time, a competent, government-led response to the ongoing pandemic was maybe the leading rationale for Joe Biden’s presidency. Yet in practice, the president followed the lead of his election opponent, Donald Trump, and pursued a vaccine-focused strategy to the exclusion of other forms of mitigation, and barely used the Defense Production Act to ensure the country had enough of the relevant supplies — in some cases, invoking it less than Trump, despite criticizing him on the campaign trail for his restraint in using the potent wartime law.
Biden’s nineteen months in office are littered with such broken promises. Despite vowing to “build immediately toward a future, flexible American-sourced and manufactured capability” for PPE, budding homegrown manufacturers of the stuff have been dropping like flies in the face of inadequate federal support and the lack of government purchases. Meanwhile, this latest move will fly in the face of what Biden has repeatedly painted, since before he was president, as an essential, nonnegotiable part of dealing with the pandemic.
“Our path forward relies on maintaining and continually enhancing the numerous tools we now have to protect ourselves and our loved ones — from vaccines, to tests, to treatments, to masks, and more,” the White House’s own COVID-19 preparedness plan states right now, promising a future where “the country relies on the powerful layers of protection we have built and invests in the next generation of tools to stay ahead of this virus.”
Unfortunately, this is part and parcel of US health policy under this administration, which has lived up to candidate Biden’s pledge that “nothing will fundamentally change.” If the Biden administration had acted on the pandemic the way that George W. Bush had acted on the September 11 attacks, the United States should have seen a dramatic expansion of US public health provision, a massive infusion of federal dollars to fund it, and various reforms, big and small, to leave the US public better prepared for the next pandemic or other health crises.
Instead, it’s largely been, at best, inaction. Most schools have still not improved their ventilation systems despite reopening during a surge, for instance — in large part the fault of state institutions that haven’t used the mass of federal dollars set aside for this purpose, but also a result of leaving it up to state governments to choose to do it. The Democratic Congress has failed to pass paid sick leave into law, with US workers only getting to experience what is routine in the rest of the world as a result of a temporary, emergency measure passed under Trump. Meanwhile, Biden is continuing to try and privatize much of Medicare.
Not only has the United States under Biden missed an opportunity to shore up its public health sector and beef up worker protections, but now it’s set to privatize the meager expansion of public responsibility that took place in fighting COVID. It’s a disappointing end to what many thought would be a New Deal–like revolution in the US political economy. But worse than that, it’s a bad omen for what could soon be a lethal fall and winter.