With more than 1 in 500 Americans having died from COVID-19, the pandemic continues to be one of the biggest threats ever to have faced this country and requires a response commensurate in gravity. While commendably proactive, President Biden’s vaccine mandate falls short. What our nation needs now is a New Deal for Public Health, a set of ambitious initiatives to combat this and future crises. Without dramatic change, and a re-think about the balance between individual freedom and civic responsibility, the United States risks lagging behind the rest of the world in recovering from this health emergency and from those in the future.
Controversial when President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted it in the 1930s, the New Deal birthed many essential programs that we take for granted today and restarted the American economy after the devastation of the Great Depression.
Biden has a responsibility to take similarly sweeping action to help the U.S. emerge from the pandemic and an opportunity to put systems in place that will serve future generations. If willing to take courageous action, Biden could significantly improve the coordination and execution of national responses to public health crises. There are surely more to come.
The cornerstone of the New Deal for Public Health would be a health passport to allow vaccinated and COVID-negative individuals to access certain places and activities, supported by a national vaccination program and a federal medical database. Just as Roosevelt’s New Deal called on citizens to think differently about social safety nets, the New Deal for Public Health would require Americans to reconsider the balance between personal freedom and the critical need to maintain public health. And just as Roosevelt had to weather staunch resistance to his New Deal, enacting the necessary programs in today’s political climate — where many oppose any kind of government involvement in their decision to vaccinate or even to wear masks — would require brave leadership from Biden. I believe that the continuing strength of the United States depends on his willingness to do so.
The current approach is simply not working. Biden’s vaccine mandate will be plagued with legal challenges, as it does everything short of forcing certain Americans to get jabbed. What’s more, it highlights the chasm between political camps. At the heart of vaccine resistance is the societal breakdown in the United States and the calcifying division between left and right. The distrust that many have in our elected officials has been exacerbated by the lack of a coordinated approach from the federal government, evident recently in the mixed messaging over the COVID-19 booster shot. Ultimately, the cost of this confusion will be paid in American lives.
Ideally, Americans would not be forced to be inoculated but would do so out of civic duty. Getting vaccinated has implications that extend beyond one’s individual health. Doing so also protects family, friends and the wider community, prevents hospitals and medical personnel from becoming overwhelmed, and stimulates the economy.
Still, we must acknowledge that people often act out of self-interest. Implementing health passports would give people a reason to vaccinate. Take the example of France, one of the most vaccine-skeptical nations in the world. As recently as last December, 60 percent of the French population said they didn’t want to get the shot. Then, in mid-July French President Emmanuel Macron announced that his government would be rolling out a health pass, requiring citizens to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test (while at the same time ending free testing) in order to go to a bar or restaurant, see a movie or museum or take long-distance public transport. That week, a record 3.7 million people booked appointments to get inoculated. Today, nearly 82 percent of people over the age of 12 in France are vaccinated.
Biden should take a similar step. Those in the U.S. who choose not to get vaccinated have a right to do so, but they should not be allowed access to facilities and events where they could endanger the lives of others. The American people rightly treasure their individual liberties, but freedom should not come at the price of other’s lives. Freedom cannot come before security.
The matter is urgent. In the 15 years I have been running a global health care management group, I have met with thousands of doctors and other medical personnel. Over the last eight months I have seen their growing fatigue, frustration and anger. They no longer want to put themselves and their families at risk to care for patients who reject the vaccine but want to be treated when they get the virus.
Strong leadership often requires making unpopular choices. It is time for the Biden administration to take decisive action to restore the health of the American people and economy for the benefit of all citizens.
Sigal Atzmon is the Founder and CEO of Medix Global, a shared value, data-driven health management company that serves millions of patients in 90 different countries.