On Sunday night, Joe Biden went ahead and made a declaration on 60 Minutes that was guaranteed to rile up a certain segment of the left. “The pandemic is over,” he said. “We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s — but the pandemic is over.”
The “over” angered a number of public-health professionals and COVID hawks, who are furious mitigation tactics against the virus haven’t been pursued into the fall of 2022. “Is the pandemic over? Hell no—Not even close,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding. Mehdi Hasan, the MSNBC host, echoed these sentiments. “One of the (many) reasons they’re not wearing masks is because people like Biden keep (falsely) telling them the pandemic is over,” he tweeted.
The argument against Biden is compelling. Technically, of course, the pandemic is not over. More than 400 people still die daily of COVID in the U.S. The virus has not, in any way, vanished. Most Americans have either had COVID, know someone who has been sick, or know someone who has died in the past two years. And though the majority of the population is vaccinated and new variant-specific boosters are available, there is always the danger the virus changes again: Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist, warned of a “major variant” coming this winter.
And Biden’s responsibilities haven’t ended. The federal government must take a much more active role in the latest booster campaign and ensure the elderly and immunocompromised receive, as quickly as possible, updated shots. America’s death toll has been correlated, almost exclusively, to senior citizens and those with preexisting health conditions. Younger, healthier people can certainly keep getting vaccinated, but the money and time must be expended on those who need the most protection. If the federal government fails, in coordination with states, to convince these populations to get vaccinated, he deserves serious censure.
But on the facts and politics of the pandemic—and yes, both matter—Biden is absolutely right. The pandemic will end because all pandemics end. They wind down. The virus becomes endemic. Biden’s definition of the pandemic is political, even psychological, and it’s the common sense millions across the world now follow. The segment of the public-health community and pundit class most enraged at Biden ignores the obvious science behind COVID-19, particularly the latest variant, BA.5. Mitigations against the variant work less well than they would have in 2020, since it spreads far more easily than prior versions of the virus. Your level of vaccination does not matter, either, in the sense that breakthrough cases are inordinately common with BA.5 and the vaccinated can spread the virus as easily as the unvaccinated. New York City, with an adult vaccination rate approaching 90 percent, has been home to Omicron and BA.5 waves. Vaccination still safeguards you from severe illness and death. It does not, however, hold the magic key to making COVID disappear. Nothing does.
This may sound alarming until you consider COVID is no longer killing people at nearly the rate it used to. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said recently that the end of the pandemic was “in sight” and that the world has never been in a better position to end it. The number of weekly reported deaths from COVID worldwide is the lowest since March 2020. This is good news, and it should be celebrated. With the levels of vaccination and immunity derived from prior infection, more and more of the global population — and certainly Americans — enjoys protection against COVID to ward off the worst outcomes.
Pre-pandemic life has returned to most corners of the globe, beyond the few nations pursuing zero-COVID policies, like China. Europeans do not mask any more frequently than Americans do. Schools are open, shops are open, and travel has roared back. The isolation of the last two years has come to a close. This is, despite the protests of Twitter, a fabulous outcome. One lesson of COVID is that many public-health professionals underrated the risk that sustained social-distancing measures would have on human beings, particularly children and teens. Prolonged school closures were an unmitigated disaster, helping to erase two decades of progress on math and reading scores. Teens suffered in isolation without friends and after-school programs to give meaning to their days. Mental-health challenges were severe.
Public-health officials should understand that it’s impossible to expect any population to be on permanent war footing. Holiday gatherings were canceled, sometimes two years in a row. People couldn’t say good-bye to family members at hospitals and were barred from holding funerals. Now they want to live in full again, because life is indeed short and shouldn’t be spent in hiding, away from friends and loved ones. Biden, in his own way, is making a philosophical argument too. We have to combat dread diseases, but we have to do our best, above all, to exist. Socialization is an essential component of being alive. It’s the dinner parties, ball games, church services, and trips to the movies that give life its lushness. Biden, in this case, gets it.