Almost two years into his presidency, we are seeing a different Joe Biden than the one we saw on the campaign trail. For example, his recent comments on Trumpism and Taiwan reflect a boldness that has thus far been relatively absent from his presidency. Last week, President Biden issued yet another signal of this changed approach, one that impacts all Americans.
In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes which aired Sept. 18, Biden proclaimed that “the pandemic is over.” He clarified that although “we still have a problem with COVID” and “we’re still doing a lot of work on it,” he believes the troubles of COVID-19 are behind us.
At first, this almost seems true. Most Americans are not just tired of masking for their own safety but also seem not to care if people around them are unmasked. The most basic measure of COVID-19 protection has been broken down from a highly politicized debate to a matter of personal preference. Indeed, most businesses, cities and schools have long since rolled back their mask requirements, which would have been considered a highly controversial, conservative stance just a year ago.
However, I believe that Biden is making a foolish assumption. There’s no question that the United States is past the “peak” of the pandemic. However, COVID-19 is still killing over 300 Americans per day, a statistic that has remained steady for months now. His statement callously ignores the deaths of thousands of Americans each month, as well as the family and friends who must grieve them.
Moreover, it ignores the crisis facing our strained healthcare system as thousands of Americans contribute to physician burnout and staffing shortages that have been worsening for over two years now. This problem endangers both doctors and patients, weakening an already fragmented national healthcare system. Furthermore, it’s something that Biden himself should be poignantly aware of, considering both he and the First Lady were infected with COVID-19 this past summer. Thus, for many Americans, the move past the pandemic is a matter of willful ignorance and COVID-19 fatigue, not of safety.
This isn’t to say the Biden administration hasn’t made great strides in the fight against COVID-19. Biden’s COVID-19 policies were certainly a welcome change from those of former President Trump, who infamously promoted “alternative” treatments such as the malaria medication hydroxychloroquine. But Biden himself seems to know that his work isn’t yet done. Just a few weeks ago, it was reported that Biden plans to request an additional $22.4 billion from Congress for COVID-19 aid, amid fears of a potential fall increase in cases.
These plans are surprisingly uncharacteristic for a U.S. pandemic response. For decades, the United States has tended to fall into the same damaging cycle of public health response: a crisis is identified, responded to (usually in a too-little, too-late manner) and generally forgotten about without long-term change. For instance, it is difficult to remember what policies were enacted in response to outbreaks such as the bird flu (H5N1), Ebola and the swine flu (H1N1). The U.S. has shown time and time again that it is not committed to keeping future generations safe.
Recent developments like declining monkeypox cases and Biden's request for continued COVID-19 relief show promise, but Biden’s dismissive rhetoric on a national stage destroys this progress and ruins the opportunity to prioritize public health and to create lasting change in our outbreak response. COVID-19 isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime tragedy for the country: a global pandemic can happen again, and we must be prepared – starting with our leadership.
Of course, the U.S. must build public health infrastructure and respond to future problems in a way that provides support for generations to come, but a lot of pandemic response comes down to the people. It is a government’s responsibility to educate citizens on safety guidelines, but it is our responsibility to listen — not in a blind, unquestioning way, but in a truly informed manner that can benefit us and our communities.
As Tufts’ fall semester moves into full swing with classes, club meetings and events, this is more important than ever. Universities can be breeding grounds for COVID-19 and any other disease transmitted through close contact. Regardless of whether or not you agree with President Biden that the lowered case counts can reduce our concern, the COVID-19 pandemic can and should not be forgotten about. It’s up to us to make that legacy one of change and not complacency.