Newsletter #15: Joe Biden Has Failed in His Fight Against Coronavirus, with Justin Feldman

by Benjamin Feldman

Last January, Joe Biden entered office promising to win the war against coronavirus. Four months later, Center for Disease Control director Rachelle Wolensky announced that vaccinated Americans could take off their masks, and on July 4, Biden declared something like victory over the pandemic, telling the nation that “while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, … it no longer controls our lives, it no longer paralyzes our nation, and it’s within our power to make sure it never does so again.” In the months since that victory speech, tens of millions of Americans have been infected with the virus, and more than 250,000 have died. 

Though the extent of Delta’s pathogenicity or Omicron’s immune evasiveness were not predicted, epidemiologists have long insisted that until the rest of the world is vaccinated, new variants will keep coming. Why, then, was the Biden administration so unprepared? And why have they barely deviated from a vaccine-only response, which, though it may have made sense in January 2021, has been wholly inadequate to January 2022? 

These are the questions that social epidemiologist Justin Feldman tackles in his recent overview of Biden’s pandemic response and in his conversation with The Dig. 

Feldman argues that, led by Jeffrey Zients — a consultant who helped the Obama administration “streamline processes [and] cut costs,” in between stints on the boards of Sirius XM and Facebook — the White House bet on avoiding politically risky non-pharmaceutical interventions — contact tracing, mass testing, temporary closures of non-essential businesses, and any policy that would irk business by impeding proftimaking — and keep the economy humming while we marched toward herd immunity. Though they lost this bet, the administration has largely refused to reverse course, even as infections soared above 800,000 each day. 

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Justin Feldmanhere.

Rather than using state resources to fight and minimize infections, Biden has treated the socialized risks of life in a pandemic as matters of personal responsibility, and the administration has taken to lashing out at those it sees as standing in the way of a return to normalcy. Teachers are demonized for not wanting to return to schools, despite those schools being transformed into little more than holding pens for both sick and not-yet-sick children so their parents can get back to work. Those who have yet to get their first shot are treated as an undifferentiated mass of intransigent MAGA supporters — even though, Feldman writes, “the unvaccinated are largely low-income, uninsured, pregnant, incarcerated, and children” (to say nothing of the immunocompromised for whom vaccination provides insufficient protection). 

By dragging their feet on distributing masks, undermining rapid tests, failing to provide better air filtration, and telling people to return to work while still potentially infectious, the administration has contributed mightily to the chaos and suffering of the last few weeks. As Feldman makes clear, these failures were not inevitable and must not be treated as such. They are failures of a Democratic administration’s policy and personnel, of individual people unable to learn from their mistakes and unwilling to prioritize people over profits. 

Further Reading

There’s no shortage of pandemic coverage out there, of course. But you can read Feldman’s recent Medium post here. For more on the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic, check out Astra Taylor and Achal Prabhala’s discussion on vaccine apartheid