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Opinion It’s time to let go of the culture war over the virus and stand up for normalcy

President Biden arrives at a meeting with members of the White House Covid-19 Response Team in D.C. on Jan. 4. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg)
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Democrats, who nominally control Washington, are about to face a reckoning on covid-19.

At some point soon, they’re going to have to start treating the coronavirus not as the uncontrollable public health crisis it used to be, but as the public policy crisis it has now become.

This isn’t just semantics. Public health is an overriding concern in public policy; when the people are in grave danger, it’s the primary job of governments to keep them safe. But in normal times, health risks have to be balanced against other vital governing priorities — economics, education, individual liberties.

President Donald Trump faced an acute public health crisis. History will judge him to have done a pretty horrid job with it, unless you think refusing to take precautions and stoking divisions while people die qualifies as solid leadership.

But Trump’s administration did achieve something important: Vaccines came fast, and they were remarkably effective.

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And so, even as the new variant sends cases spiking, President Biden faces a very different situation from his predecessor. The country now is basically divided into three groups.

The largest group is the fully vaccinated. For most of us, the new variant is a serious nuisance, like an especially virile flu, but not much more than that. It’s unpleasant (I know, because I have it), but if this were the version of covid that hit everyone who got infected in 2020, no school or business would have closed.

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The second group is the immune-compromised, even if they are vaccinated — including people with underlying conditions and the elderly. The risk to them remains high, and the extra care they have to take can be isolating. But that’s the case with every contagion, including the flu. We don’t reorder the society around it.

The third group is, of course, the unvaccinated. (I’m not including children under 5, who are still not eligible for a coronavirus vaccine.) They’ve now had a year to absorb all the warnings and weigh all the arguments. They’ve seen high-profile vaccine deniers — talk show hosts, Trumpian candidates — needlessly dying from a virus they chose to exploit.

At this point, the unvaccinated are like unrepentant smokers. We’ve spent decades telling them they might get lung cancer. We’ve plastered warnings everywhere.

But you know what? All of us get to make our own idiotic choices — that’s the American way.

We don’t shut down the highway just because a bunch of yahoos are riding their motorcycles without helmets. And thanks to the new antiviral drugs, the risks even to the unvaccinated might soon be less lethal than that.

Sure, you can argue that the virus still overwhelms hospitals and is costing us a ton of money. But that’s a capacity problem, not an existential crisis. You don’t solve technical shortages by shuttering schools and keeping nurses at home with draconian quarantine policies.

I should note the obvious, which is that I’m no doctor. (For that expertise, you should read my colleague Leana S. Wen.) And yes, some breakthrough infections can be serious, unlike mine, and it will be a while before we can really assess the virus’s long-term dangers.

My point, though, is political. If Biden is going to beat the pandemic rather than be undone by it, he is going to have to acknowledge the new reality, which is that our public policy is way too weighted toward a bunch of people who made the wrong choice.

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Biden said as much in remarks at the White House Tuesday, addressing his comments to the unvaccinated. That’s fine.

But it’s his own Democratic constituencies — teachers unions, local governments, ultra-leftist Trump haters who refuse to let go of the culture war over the virus — who would continue to hold the country hostage to what now is a manageable public health risk. In Montgomery County, a group of parents and teachers who want to close the schools issued a call this week for children to stay home in protest.

Biden needs to take these people on and steer his party toward a more sensible course.

Often, presidents and their aides get sucked into the 24-hour maelstrom of running the country, and they forget why we hired them in the first place.

Biden isn’t president because we expected him to eradicate covid. He’s president because he promised a return to normalcy.

He spent most of his first year pretending to be the second coming of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and if he’s not careful, he’ll spend most of the second presiding over a new wave of lockdowns that will destroy his party.

It’s time to say that the unvaccinated get to make their own dumb choices, and for the rest of us, this is no longer the kind of public health crisis that should derail our schooling and our jobs.

That’s good public policy — and good politics, too.

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