Ever since vaccines were first rolled out, most Americans have, understandably, behaved in their personal lives as if the coronavirus pandemic had ended. But over the weekend, President Joe Biden caused a stir by seeming to make it official.
Asked by 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley as they strolled through the Detroit Auto Show if the pandemic was over, Biden agreed. “The pandemic is over,” he said. “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s wh — the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one’s wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.”
Part of what made Biden’s comments so controversial is how divorced they seem from indisputable plain facts. How can the pandemic be over, critics pointed out, how when between four and five hundred Americans are dying from it every day and when an estimated 16 million working-age Americans are suffering from “long COVID,” with two to four million of them having dropped out of the workforce?
But more than that: a president’s words have extraordinary power, and in this instance they’ve struck an entirely unnecessary blow against Biden’s own ostensible agenda. If Biden believes the pandemic is over, why is his administration trying to get $22 billion from Congress to combat the pandemic, running a vaccination drive for the fall to get people jabbed with new Omicron-subvariant-fighting booster shots, and looking at renewing its soon-to-expire public health emergency declaration?
Both public health experts and Biden’s own staff are now warning the president’s remarks are going to make all this harder. After all, if the president tells the country there’s no more pandemic, it doesn’t exactly underline the urgency of booking an appointment to get the new shots.
This isn’t theoretical. The day after the 60 Minutes interview aired, Starbucks announced that the virus’s move to “the endemic phase” meant the company would end its COVID sick pay policy after this month. Now, if Starbucks workers get ill with coronavirus, they’ll no longer have the up to two weeks of “catastrophe” pay that leaves them financially cushioned while they self-isolate.
Biden’s words are also now fueling a GOP pushback against his own administration’s pandemic policies. Republicans are already pointing to his remarks to question the necessity of the $22 billion of COVID funding he’s requested (“If [the pandemic is] over, then I wouldn’t suspect they need any more money,” said one senator), to go after vaccine requirements for federal workers and contractors, and to call for the end of the national emergency. Who says the presidential bully pulpit can’t move Congress?
If that emergency status ends, it will have far-reaching consequences for millions of elderly and low-income people’s ability to get health care. The web of federal emergency declarations has made possible everything from free testing, treatment, and vaccines and expanded telehealth coverage to lowering patient costs and expanding the coverage and services of entitlement programs.
Medicaid enrollment ballooned by 25 percent to a historic peak of 80 million this year, thanks to a provision upping federal subsidies for state spending on the program, on the condition that state governments don’t remove people from the program’s rolls or make it harder to qualify for it — a provision set to end whenever the public health emergency ends. Any push to bring these emergency declarations to a close would not only make it harder to deal with COVID but would have a damaging effect on people’s health care coverage more broadly, especially in poorer households, generally making access to health care harder and more complicated.
Other matters that could be affected include Biden’s partial student debt cancellation plan, whose legal reasoning partly rests on the pandemic’s existence, and the ongoing right-wing legal challenges to pandemic public health rules, which the president’s sound bite could bolster. “Joe Biden last night was the Republicans’ best messenger,” a Senate GOP aide told Business Insider.
But maybe the true significance of Biden’s words is that, for all the behind-the-scenes harrumphing that they don’t reflect what the administration is trying to do, they actually kind of do. Just last month, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator announced the federal government would stop buying vaccines, treatments, and tests for the virus by the end of this year and open the door to the full “commercialization” of these vital pandemic-fighting tools, for which Americans will soon be forced to rely on unscrupulous insurers and other profit-seeking companies, not their government. Despite explicitly saying the country’s “path forward relies on maintaining and continually enhancing” these policies, the Biden administration, virtually alone in the world, was moving to gut them.
This is just one of many promises unfulfilled. Domestic manufacturing of personal protective equipment is going nowhere despite a vow early on to build it. School ventilation systems are still largely stuck in a prepandemic past despite the money being there to improve them for student safety. The Defense Production Act that was once the cornerstone of Biden’s pandemic pitch has barely been invoked. The United States somehow still lags the rest of the developed world in simply competently collecting data, understood even during Donald Trump’s term as an essential precondition for responding to the virus. All of these shortfalls go against not just the administration’s own vision of the “path out of the pandemic,” but the World Health Organization’s plan for doing so.
The unfortunate truth is that long before this 60 Minutes interview, Biden was more or less signaling to the public they should treat the pandemic like it was over, whether by ending key planks of the federal response to the virus or by outright declaring premature victory over it. While far from the only factor, this kind of attitude at the very top provided cover for both state and local governments and businesses to start dismantling their own pandemic protections. Now thanks to this climate of top-down lethargy toward a crisis that’s left more than a million Americans dead, the private sector can no longer be bothered helping the White House in its latest vaccination drive.
And that’s before we get to the way this messaging kills what should have been a compelling public case for some genuine transformational change. If the pandemic is “over,” then what urgency is left to pass paid sick leave in Congress? Why move on even minimally reforming the dysfunctional, corporate-dominated US health care system if the once-in-a-century public health emergency is no longer happening? Where’s the need to strengthen the country’s threadbare public health infrastructure now that things are back to normal or to waive vaccine patents so we can get them in the hands of the developing world? Oh, and don’t worry about changing course from Trump and Biden’s initiative to privatize Medicare — an ongoing pandemic might have made that a particularly unwise idea, but luckily we don’t have that problem anymore.
When three thousand people died in September 11, the Right made radical, far-reaching changes in American life and government, vastly expanding the national security state, pushing major cultural and social changes involving norms of behavior and security rituals, embarking on a global crusade against the threat, and pouring seemingly bottomless sums of money into it all. Three thousand people were dying each day at one point in the pandemic, and a liberal administration that claims to be resurrecting big government can’t even make a public case to keep the bare minimum COVID protections in place.
It’s easy to see the president’s reasoning. There’s an election coming up, and Biden’s eager to declare a job well done. But the job is far from done — and maybe most depressing, Biden’s words suggest the death of any liberal ambition to change that fact.