Let’s stop fighting each other and tackle our common foe: the virus
2021 was the year the virus won.
With COVID-19 infections once again surging to all-time highs as the Omicron variant takes hold, it’s hard to recall the ebullience of a year ago. Truly amazing science had produced effective vaccines in record time. A new administration was about to assume office, dedicated to consistent messaging and a national strategy to tame the virus. Many shared President Biden’s optimism that an aggressive vaccination campaign and other prudent measures would bring the pandemic to heel by the end of May 2021. “I’m never going to raise the white flag and surrender,” Biden declared defiantly during his campaign. “We’re going to beat this virus. We’re going to get it under control.”
When vaccinations became widely available by the spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was confident enough in their efficacy to modify its guidance so that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask for protection. Universities such as Rutgers, where I work, mandated student vaccination in the expectation that in-person, maskless classes could resume in the fall of 2021. Restaurants reopened, many offices repopulated, and travel approached pre-pandemic levels.
Then reality struck.
By July, the administration’s widely proclaimed “summer of freedom” from the virus essentially ended. Vaccinated people, it turns out, still could contract the virus, although their symptoms were likely to be less severe, and potentially could infect others. Masking in some settings was now recommended even for vaccinated people.
The drumbeat of fatalities, meanwhile, continued throughout the year as the nation struggled to cope with the Delta variant. COVID fatalities, which numbered 339,294 as of Jan. 1, 2021, according to data kept by the New York Times, have more than doubled to 821,000 by late December. All of that bad news preceded the emergence of the Omicron variant.
In announcing plans to confront the latest variant, the Biden administration has altered fundamentally both its tone and its approach. There is no more talk of “beating” the virus; the administration’s purpose now, as CNN reported, is to prepare “a nation exhausted by two years of battling the invisible enemy to live more feasibly alongside it.” The CDC shortened its quarantine period for people exposed to the virus based not so much on science, but on “what we thought people would be able to tolerate.” And the president who seemed determined to exercise his powers to the maximum to assure victory — going so far as to issue vaccine mandates for all employers of over 100 people — now insists “there is no federal solution. This gets solved at the state level.”
In other words, game over. The only thing missing was the white flag. We will not beat the virus.
Historians will unpack the multitude of reasons for our nation’s — and the world’s — failure to contain the pandemic. As we enter 2022, however, one overriding reality must be highlighted for the sake of our future congress with COVID, as well as with potential future pandemics: Never, during the two-year course of COVID-19, have we recognized in any way that mattered that our primary adversary was the virus, and not each other.
On a global scale, instead of serving to rally the nations of the world to meet a common foe, COVID-19 has become just another outlet for national competition, ideological antagonism and populist recklessness and disinformation. Africa, an entire continent, home to 1 billion people, has been virtually ignored as vaccines have been distributed.
Similarly, at the national level, there has been little to no coordination of efforts. State was pitted against state for procurement of emergency equipment, and states went their own ways in imposing restrictions or other public health measures. Within the states, moreover, some municipalities resisted the measures their states’ governors attempted to impose; legislation is pending in 37 states to curtail the governors’ emergency public health powers.
Even among families, and from individual to individual, we have not unified to face a common foe; instead, the virus has become yet another source of division.
The result: In the simplest terms — with fatalities likely to approach 1 million in the United States and 7 million globally — we just fought World War III, humankind versus the virus, and the virus won because we fought each other primarily, instead of the disease.
In doing so, we seem to have forgotten the wisdom of those from virtually every faith who preach — to paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi — that the true test of a civilization is how it treats its most vulnerable members. The elderly, the impoverished, the infirm — our world’s most vulnerable members, and COVID’s principal victims — have been treated, in effect, as expendable while we fought each other over what measures were necessary to impose.
It may be too late to beat the virus in 2022. But it’s not too late to take stock. It’s not too late to recognize that the enemy in this struggle doesn’t respect the national, state, local or interpersonal boundaries that, thus far, have defined our response. It’s not too late to recover a sense of our common humanity, and to focus our future efforts on doing what we can to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Remembering that we share a potentially unifying purpose may be the best way to assure a happier and healthier new year.
John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.
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