The White House claims to follow the science. But it has missed chance after chance to limit infection – with disastrous results
Last modified on Sat 15 Jan 2022 06.01 EST
On 2 December, the White House announced its winter plans for a likely Covid surge that would come as cold temperatures and holiday plans drove people indoors. It included an alarmingly inadequate plan to get at-home tests to people.
The plan dropped nine days after scientists in South Africa had announced that they had discovered a new variant of the coronavirus, one that appeared to be even more transmissible. The US had acted quickly to ban travel from South Africa and several other southern African countries, claiming that such restrictions would “slow things down” and “buy time” for the US to prepare.
But as the days ticked closer to Christmas and New Year’s, and the inevitable surge of infections that would follow, it was difficult to see what we were buying time for. The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, had scoffed at the idea of providing free tests for Americans and mailing them to homes, as many other countries have done.
Instead, the administration said that 150 million Americans – less than half of the country – could be reimbursed for tests if they had insurance, if they fronted the money, if they could wait to be reimbursed, and if they didn’t buy them until mid-January. Tests purchased before the holidays would be ineligible for reimbursement. Meanwhile, tests were impossible to find in huge swathes of the country – or required standing in lines so long that they were only accessible to those who could afford what amounted to a tax on people’s time.
It was a plan that was so complicated, so limited, so inadequate, and so fundamentally wrong-headed that it exemplified everything that has gone wrong with the Biden administration’s response to the coronavirus to date.
A mantra of successful health campaigns is “make the healthy choice the easy choice”. But the Biden administration has been intent on making matters that should be easy difficult, prioritizing rules and regulations over results, deferring to private industry in matters of state responsibility, burdening individuals already at their breaking points, adding cumbersome barriers of time and logistics, being too slow, and displaying too much contempt and too little urgency in responding to cries for help.
This week, the US shattered world records for the most coronavirus infections and hospitalizations of any country since the pandemic began. Two years into this crisis and a year into Biden’s presidency, we seem to be even worse off than we were under Trump in the most lethal metric: more deaths are taking place under the Democrat than occurred under his predecessor.
What is going on? How did the richest country in the world – a country now governed by the party that allegedly “believes the science” – get here? Why have the Democrats given up on saving the lives of those they claim to represent?
When he took office, Biden flooded the country with vaccines, and rightly so. The US had many advantages then: three approved, domestically produced vaccines and a Democratic president and Congress that appropriately funded getting jabs into arms via every possible lever of society. At one point, the US was vaccinating four million people in a single day.
But Democrats around the country have pursued a vaccine-only strategy at times when there is simply too much virus bouncing around communities. Vaccines work best in tandem with other mitigation measures, such as ventilation, masks, distancing, and paid lockdowns when necessary, so that people encounter viruses as infrequently as possible.
Biden has fought Republicans to require employers of more than 100 people to mandate vaccines or testing, a plan which the supreme court blocked in a genocidal fashion this week. But even if that protection were still in place, there were times when the president and Democratic governors and mayors should have closed worksites wherever possible.
A vaccine is like a rain jacket. A good rain jacket will keep you dry in the rain, especially if you also use an umbrella and rubber boots. But if someone turns a firehose on you and points it at you for days or weeks, you’re going to get wet, even in the best rain jacket possible.
That’s what’s happening right now, as many vaccinated people are getting mostly moderate, but still contagious, breakthrough infections. The US recorded 1.35 million new cases on Monday alone, to say nothing of unrecorded cases.
With so many children still unvaccinated, schools should have gone remote this month for a few weeks. The federal government should have paid as many workers to stay home as possible in a short-term “circuit-break” lockdown to lower community viral loads. This has not happened.
At the same time, the populations of prisons, jails and Ice detention centers – some of the most potent vectors of all – should have been reduced. This also did not happen.
In mid-December, Vice-President Kamala Harris told the Los Angeles Times that the Administration hadn’t seen mutations coming. She even seemed surprised that “it turns out” that SARS-CoV-2 “has mutations and variants”.
In October, the outgoing director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, told MSNBC that “we underestimated the vaccine hesitancy issue,” admitting: “I wish we had somehow seen that coming and come up with some kind of a myth-buster approach.”
These are confounding statements from officials in an administration that has claimed it will “follow the science”. The NIH funds plenty of virologists who have long predicted mutations (and provided advice on how to deal with them), as well as sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists who have studied vaccine hesitancy (and how to deal with it).
Utilizing science means changing the course of action as the conditions being studied necessitate.
A common defense to justify keeping schools, prisons or job sites open through a Covid wave has been to say, “It’s not early 2020 anymore; people are vaccinated.” Some people are, but it’s not early 2021 either, when we hoped these vaccines would largely stop onward transmission.
The vaccines do offer excellent individual protection, and they do seem to be decreasing onwards transmission. But how much they decrease it could change with each variant, and they don’t stop it as much as we’d hoped they might.
So, when positivity rates get too high, the science says we must wear high-quality masks, distance when possible, and lock down if needed until levels drop to levels where the vaccines are most effective. (Restaurants, very dangerous worksites, should definitely be closed and their workers paid to stay home.)
But Democrats in Washington, Chicago and New York keep using vaccination as justification to keep schools open as daycare centers. Is this really for our collective safety? Or to keep workers earning more wealth for the Democratic donor class?
In June and July of 2021, Abbott Laboratories laid off 2,000 workers and destroyed millions of rapid Covid home tests, the New York Times reported. Demand for the tests had fallen as cases fell, and the company was making a business decision.
It would only be a few weeks before the Delta variant sent demand soaring again, but by that point the tests were already gone.
In its drive to optimize every inch and every second – how much did Abbott really save by not having to warehouse those tests? – US capitalism has no resources to spare for contingency plans, or the public good.
Abbott destroying tests it saw no market for isn’t solely the fault of the Democrats. But if the Biden administration had been looking ahead to the winter – a time we always knew would see an increase of transmission as people moved indoors – it could have bought and stored those tests for a likely surge or, better yet, made its own and had a ready supply.
In assessing the health of the nation, the Democrats fetishize “the economy” without specifying who benefits from it. Marcia Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, recently bragged on Twitter that “the United States is the only major economy in the world where the economy as a whole is stronger now than before the pandemic”.
But whose economy?
Google has provided its highest paid employees, who were already working remotely, with a $1,000 device so they can also perform rapid Covid tests at home. Meanwhile, shift workers must spend hours waiting to be tested for the virus they are much more likely to have been exposed to.
As the ruling class has worked safely from home, having goods delivered by human shields, their wealth has increased because they are extracting value from the viral underclass, who are paying with their time on lines, their pathogenic work, and, sometimes, their very lives.
I often think about how the deadliest year for Aids in the US was 1995. This was 15 years into the pandemic, and just before live-saving medications to treat HIV became available. About 50,000 people died.
Last week, the United States was averaging almost 2,000 Covid deaths a day. We are churning through the same volume of death Aids caused in its worst year every five, six, seven weeks.
Covid vaccines are very good at protecting individuals’ lives, and they have certainly saved a lot of them. But alone, they have not stopped US Covid deaths from surpassing the sum of 40 years of US Aids deaths in less than two years.
On Thursday, the White House announced the federal government was purchasing 1bn at-home tests for distribution. That’s only three tests per American, and it’s too little, too late. By the time they are available, the Omicron surge may have come and gone.
But how many infections could have been prevented if the administration had acted sooner? When experts said the national production and distribution of masks and tests was needed and other countries showed how this approach worked?
And why is the administration still pushing reimbursement schemes for the insured and complicated ways to get tested rather than mailing tests home for free and giving them away wherever anyone will take them? Why are Biden and Harris both telling people to Google where to get tested, when 18% of people below the federal poverty line – those most at risk for Covid – don’t have internet access?
What if the administration had spent the time and energy it spent scapegoating South Africa looking ahead to what the US needed to do domestically? What if it had actually used the time it was “buying” to buy and distribute masks and tests?
I fear the administration is scared of spending money that “doesn’t do anything” – that it’s afraid to spend money on preventing catastrophes that never occur, and is more comfortable responding to tangible disasters after they’ve happened.
But if neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to look forward, be proactive and deal with the root causes of this disaster, then despite our alleged wealth, I fear the US will continue to be the country with the most infections and deaths on planet Earth.
Steven W Thrasher PhD, a former Guardian US writer-at-large, is a professor at Northwestern University and author of The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide, to be published by Celadon Books and Macmillan Publishing in August.