President Joe Biden insists Monday that omicron, the new COVID-19 variant discovered by South African researchers, is going to change his administration’s domestic pandemic strategy at all — despite the fact that we have no real idea how the new strain of the virus works.
On Thursday, Biden said, he’ll “be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter — not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.” Again, this is before we have reliable data on omicron’s, transmissibility, severity of symptoms, and interactions with existing vaccines. “If people are vaccinated and wear their masks,” he added later, “there’s no need for the lockdowns.”
What Biden’s strategy reflects is not so much a coherent plan to handle this uncertain fork in the road, but the complete lack of political will to meaningfully fight it anymore. The administration has resigned itself to damage control in perpetuity.
Continuing on the current path is, to say the least, a gamble. The truth is that we don’t actually know yet just how much vaccinations and masks protect against this version of COVID, and won’t know for a number of weeks. The earliest signs are mixed. The variant has dozens of mutations in its spike protein, which could make it more transmissible and more easily able to evade prior infection, and the South African province where it was first discovered is seeing a huge spike in cases. But the number of people confirmed to have contracted the variant numbers outside of South Africa is in the hundreds rather than the thousands, and there’s no sign yet that the disease which is caused by the variant is any more (or less) severe than what we’ve seen previously.
So far, all Biden has done is gone to the favored strategy of the Trump administration and western Europe: travel bans. On Sunday, Biden restricted travel from South Africa, Botswana, and a number of countries in the southern part of the continent where it was first tracked. It was later discovered that the virus had been in the Netherlands for more than a week prior to the discovery in South Africa; whether the travel ban will be extended to Europe is to be determined.
Travel bans are a move that signals security and seriousness (and has questionable effectiveness) while causing minimal political fallout in the U.S., where a not-insignificant number of people flat-out refuse to change their behavior despite a city of dead larger than the population of Denver.
Nearly two years after the pandemic hit American shores in earnest, most people are justifiably annoyed by the prospect of more “lockdowns.” But the right, in concert with the media’s tendency toward shorthand, has successfully turned the definition of “lockdowns” into an open debate, attempting to portray basic mitigation strategies like requiring kids to mask at school as the death of liberty itself.
The Biden administration’s confusing messaging hasn’t helped much. Take Vermont as an example, where Republican Gov. Phil Scott—who pulled a Lieberman and voted for Biden last year—has refused to reintroduce a statewide mask mandate even as the highly-vaccinated state is in the midst of its worst surge since last winter. For months, Scott has echoed the White House line that we are now in a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” and repositioned measures such as masking as a question of personal responsibility, which has already proven to be ineffective.
“The White House is not only not leading us in controlling (the pandemic), they’re leading us in not implementing policies that would control it, which is really remarkable to me,” Boston University public health professor Julia Raifman told VTDigger Monday.
While we still don’t know much, there are ways outside of travel bans and masking recommendations that would put the country in a better position. The push for remote workers to return, itself a form of signaling that the economy is good and everything is fine, should be slowed down. The Biden administration is finally taking steps to rectify the abject failure of the federal testing strategy, but the introduction of a new variant suggests it needs to be doing even more in emphasizing continued testing as much as it has vaccinations and masks. Globally, the government could be taking meaningful action on pushing the West on the vaccine patent waiver, instead of just offering platitudes. Domestically, there is always the option to just give people money to stay home.
The trouble is that the political will to do all of these things is gone. We’re now less than a year away from the midterms and the Biden White House is already unofficially campaigning on the big “return to normal,” both in terms of the social disruption posed by the virus and the economic problems it’s caused.
The federal government is reminding student loan borrowers almost daily that their student loan payments resume in just two months. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, appears to be making “end remote work” the centerpiece of her re-election campaign. Pandemic unemployment relief, ironically, now only exists in Republican states paying vaccine-resistant workers who lost their jobs for refusing the vaccine, a policy that’s unintentionally good as it both keeps anti-vaxxers out of workspaces and might even change a few minds about the importance of unemployment insurance.
The result of all of this is that we’re entering another uncertain phase of the pandemic and the government is only utilizing part of the toolbox to fight it. That’s not a scientific problem, it’s a political one.