Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Biden’s Covid bind

How does the President really think the pandemic will end?

How does Joe Biden see the pandemic? Two months ago, he declared victory over the virus, heralding “independence from Covid-19” on 4 July. Since then, the delta variant has arrived in the United States, case rates have soared and hospitalisations and deaths have also ticked up.

How has this unwelcome development changed the president’s thinking? For many, it is confirmation that the virus will eventually be endemic and that a Covid-free country or world is an impossibility. The good news, though, is that vaccines are freely available and very effective at preventing serious illness and death. This bad and good combination points to a need to learn to live with the coronavirus. That means accepting the grim fact of a certain level of ongoing covid deaths. It also means the case for ongoing Covid restrictions and rules is weak.

Judging by his actions last week, the president sees things differently. On Thursday, Biden announced a series of sweeping vaccine mandates. The new rules represent a u-turn from a president who repeatedly ruled out such measures. They affect federal, medical and public school workers as well as the 80 million or so Americans who work for companies that employ more than 100 people. Those firms must either require that their employees get vaccinated or be tested weekly (using expensive tests that many companies will likely choose not to offer at all).

Defending the policy, Biden asserted: “This is not about freedom, or personal choice. Its about protecting yourself and those around you.”

Here, the President is making a muddled argument in support of his mandate. On the one hand, he presses the case for the overwhelming efficacy of the vaccines. “Recent data indicates that there is only one positive case per 5,000 fully vaccinated Americans per day,” he said in his announcement. On the other hand, he argues that unvaccinated Americans are endangering the vaccinated and has promised to “protect” the vaccinated from the unvaccinated. “Our patience is wearing thin,” he said. “And your refusal has cost us all.” Biden’s first (entirely correct) empirical claim about the vaccine undermines his assertion about the vaccinated paying the price for the unvaccinated’s stubbornness.

Biden is clinging to the idea that were it not for a group of red-cap wearing, anti-science right wingers, the pandemic would be over

Whenever Biden talks about the pandemic, he does so with an it’s-really-not-that-complicated tone of exasperation. But the truth is he is stuck in a trap of his own making. He has sold America on a promise to “crush” the virus. Indeed, he spent most of last year explaining that the main driver of case numbers was the country’s executive leadership. That has left him in an awkward position in recent weeks, as cases rise on his watch.

Rather than explain the obvious truth about the need to live with Covid-19, Biden is clinging to the idea that were it not for a group of red-cap wearing, anti-science right wingers, the pandemic would be over. This is wrong on two counts. First, the anti-vaxx stereotype pushed by the administration and liberal news outlets is at odds with a much more complicated reality. America’s unvaccinated are disproportionately non-white, low income and poorly educated. They are a cohort that deserve sympathy and encouragement, not scorn and the threat of economic hardship if they do not take the vaccine.

Second, the experience of places with high vaccination rates suggests that whilst vaccines are a passport to normality, they will not eradicate the virus. Look at highly vaccinated Israel, where cases have spiked. Maine has one of the highest vaccination rates of any state, and yet is in the midst of nation-leading case growth.

And so Biden’s vaccine mandate is best understood not as a part of a coherent plan for this phase of the pandemic, but as a politically convenient exercise in blame shifting. Rather than accept the continuing presence of Covid and encouraging the unvaccinated to protect themselves in a reasonable and proportionate manner, the president has opted for blunt, partisan Covid hawkishness that fetishises some Covid measures (mask-wearing) and largely ignores others (mass testing).

The priority is to be seen to be taking Covid-19 seriously and to pass the buck after a premature announcement of victory over the virus. Axios, the DC insider news source not generally hostile to the president, described the mandate as “a strategic effort, as he’s watched his own approval numbers slip underwater in the past month, to shift frustrations about climbing Delta variant cases onto the millions who’ve either actively or passively rejected the shot and other precautions.”

Given Bidens half-century track record of partisan cynicism, none of this should come as a surprise. And judged according to these postmodern rules of political punditry, Biden’s mandate will probably work for his “narrative”, confirming Democratland’s morally simplistic goodies-and-baddies pandemic tale. But good politics isn’t good policy. And convenient stories rarely happen to be true.

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