Three Years In

Ensuring we don’t waste what we’ve learned
A patient at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia is treated for COVID-19, Augusta, Georgia, January 2022 (CNS photo/Hannah Beier, Reuters).

Anthony Fauci’s retirement from the National Institutes of Health in December might be seen as a marker in the COVID-19 pandemic, which began its sweep around the world three years ago this month. As the public face of the government’s response to the crisis, he was a competent presence amid the bunglers of the Trump administration. He was straightforward in dealing with the uncertainties of the pandemic, responding to new information with revised guidance even if it meant reversing himself on previous statements. His insistence on working with the facts and following the science was sometimes mistaken for, and often misrepresented as, arrogance or sanctimony. He was criticized and vilified, in public testimony and in conservative media, by characters like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who thought his training as an ophthalmologist made him more qualified to pronounce on public health than a key adviser on infectious diseases to every president since Ronald Reagan. Fauci and his family have received death threats, while prominent social-media figures and right-wing politicians continue to target him with violent rhetoric. Now in charge of the House of Representatives, Republicans are promising to investigate Fauci and his handling of the pandemic, with some calling for his “indictment.” Fauci, for his part, says he looks forward to testifying.

No one person deserves credit for whatever has gone right in the past three years, nor should any individual be blamed for all that went wrong. It was acknowledged even before a new coronavirus strain was detected in Wuhan, China, that the United States was unprepared for a pandemic. About 1.1 million Americans have now died from Covid—more than all the combat deaths of every war the country has ever fought in. As 2022 came to a close, the United States saw yet another spike in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Uptake of the latest vaccine remains stubbornly low as efforts to persuade people to get boosted are undermined by politicized misinformation. Meanwhile, sub-variants of the virus continue to appear, new data is confirming the prevalence and severity of long-Covid symptoms, and nearly half of all U.S. adults report suffering severe pandemic-related psychological stress. The economic impact has been significant, not least on the labor market: Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said in December that close to half a million people who would have been working have died of Covid, and that excess retirements during the pandemic removed more than 2 million people from the workforce.

No one person deserves credit for whatever has gone right in the past three years, nor should any individual be blamed for all that went wrong.

Meanwhile, the country’s already-fragile social fabric has been further frayed. One can observe this not just in how Americans sort themselves politically in regard to the pandemic, but also in how individual experience so often seems to supersede concern for the collective. Repeated mild or moderate infections have inured many people to the risks of Covid, yet its normalization as a mere “nuisance” obscures the fact that a lot of Americans remain vulnerable to severe cases of the disease. Older adults, for example, are still dying at a disproportionately higher rate. We shouldn’t simply accept these deaths as an unavoidable reality, as if Covid were just another complication of being old (or, for that matter, of being poor, or of not having health insurance).

Since the pandemic began, much has been learned about how to test and isolate, how to calibrate between restrictive closures and flexible reopenings, how to weigh the potential social and economic disruptions. More is known about how the virus moves and mutates, and about the effectiveness of ventilation, air filtration, and other technologies in mitigating its spread. The efficacy of vaccinations has been proven, in spite of deniers and the continued efforts of politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to cast doubt on them. It’s unfortunate that he and much of the Republican party have disowned the Trump administration’s one unqualified success: developing and distributing a vaccine in less than a year under its Operation Warp Speed program.

Other opportunities have slipped away: President Biden’s original proposal for $65 billion to fund pandemic preparedness was whittled down to a fraction of that amount in negotiations for the Build Back Better Act. In his 2023 budget, Biden is seeking $85 billion over the next five years to build an early-warning system for detecting biological and viral threats and to fast-track the development of shots, drugs, and tests for various pathogens. But it’s far from guaranteed that Congress will come through with all of that money. There were signs that a 9/11-style independent panel would be established to investigate and report on the nation’s response to the pandemic, but that idea has been dropped. Both parties, along with the Biden administration, seemed uneasy about where it might lead. “Time after time we have seen how our response to this pandemic could have, and should have, been better,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a cosponsor of the original proposal. “We owe it to everyone who has worked so hard to get us through this pandemic to take action so we are never in this situation again.” Unfortunately, with every compromise and half-measure, we put ourselves at greater risk. Even as this pandemic lingers, another and potentially more deadly one looms. We will be in this situation again if we waste the lessons of the past three years.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 
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