President Biden’s competent, “adult in the room” approach to the pandemic has now killed nearly as many Americans as President Donald Trump’s pandemic infantilism. In the 326 days from Feb. 29, 2020, to Jan. 20, 2021, 402,269 Americans died of covid-19 on Trump’s watch. This past Sunday marked 326 days since Biden’s inauguration and that death toll is on the verge of being surpassed: By Sunday afternoon, there were 392,357 deaths under Biden.
Both presidents experienced major pandemic advantages and disadvantages. Trump, like the rest of the world, was blindsided. But he was also incompetent to the point of borderline dereliction of duty — and was even sidelined by the virus himself. Trump was advantaged, however, by presiding over the only time in America — and perhaps the world — when social distancing and lockdowns were taken seriously. People sang the “happy birthday” song every time they washed their hands. They shopped for groceries at midnight. They applauded essential workers every night at 7 p.m. They didn’t leave their homes. They forwent sex!
By contrast, Biden, elected on a promise to restore responsible management of the pandemic, has had the advantage of largely presiding over a time when vaccines were available and plentiful. But his march of progress has had ironically rockier terrain: clumsy, often-rushed reopenings and stronger mutations of the virus, including the delta and omicron variants.
Both presidents have also had cartoonishly dumb moments: Trump rambled about the possibility of injecting bleach as a cure. Biden hosted a Fourth of July party at the White House with free beer and Hollywood president Bill Pullman in hopes of making America independent of the virus by Independence Day, which we never came close to.
Whatever differences Americans may think each president has had in their lives, their pandemic track records have been roughly equivalent: an average of 1,218 dead compatriots every day regardless of who is in power. Nearly one death per minute. The most important immunity of our pandemic is this: The virus is immune to politics. Whether Britain or Israel, Australia or India, Japan or Spain, Sweden or Vietnam, no system of government has prevailed.
“People say, ‘I’m following the science,’ but that leaves a lot of wiggle room. Sociology and psychology are also sciences. Not just virology,” said Robert Wachter, a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “People say ‘best practice,’ and that’s just camouflage for what you think is the right thing to do.”
He detailed the strange dynamics of this moment: “One would have thought that deaths in Florida and Texas would be far more than in California based on public policy. And they’re more, but they’re not far more, when you look at per capita deaths. There’s a lot we don’t understand,” he said. “Some of that is this funny equilibrium in a pandemic, which is if you act ‘badly’ — you’re not following the science, whether with masking or vaccines — at some point you’re getting infected. The vast majority who get infected don’t die and get some level of immunity. That’s why we’re at an interesting place at a national level now. Depending on the quality of immunity and its length, the level of protection of regions that have acted ‘well’ and regions that have acted ‘badly’ are not that different from each other. But it’s metastable. It’s not going to last. Omicron may laugh at us with all of this stuff.”
On a state level, of course, it hasn’t helped matters that California and New York have been run just as badly as Florida and Texas. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who routinely pledged to lead with science, was spotted cavorting without masks at a French Laundry birthday party. And former New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D) wrote a book on pandemic leadership while hiding senior citizens’ covid-19 deaths at retirement communities, opening restaurants fully on Feb. 14 as a “love letter” to the beleaguered industry, and bemoaning overcrowded hospitals after closing hospitals for years. That’s not science and, thankfully, now it’s not governance either.
Across the country, there’s been plenty of similarly upside-down or vile behavior. The most successful churchgoers to fight a mask mandate came out of California. Meanwhile, folks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula walked around saying “I identify as fully vaccinated” despite living where the shockingly high test positivity rate, at 29 percent, wasn’t much lower than the shockingly low full vaccination rate, 35 percent.
Frontline workers across the country — those same folks we applauded nightly — resisted or rejected vaccines. In Indiana, as college students fought a vaccine mandate, conservative demigod Judge Frank Easterbrook swatted them down in appellate court (“people who do not want to be vaccinated can go elsewhere”) and was then amplified by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who kept it out of Supreme Court consideration.
White gay men frolicked shoulder to shoulder on Fire Island — (spoiler: their shoulders aren’t the only bits that touched) — and in Puerto Vallarta, and in July in Provincetown, Mass. — later, a CDC study revealed that 346 of 469 new coronavirus cases in the Massachusetts outbreak were fully or partly vaccinated.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed was maskless at a nightclub, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got an unmasked blowout at a hair salon. Across New York City, illegal raves have flourished. This is where we are in America: Airlines — the friendly skies! — have had sharper pandemic teeth than the Pentagon. In many ways, old ideas of us vs. them have vaporized into a new fog of pandemic culture wars.
But something else has also happened across the United States during the pandemic: a slowly-but-surely rousing reckoning against inequality and injustice, whether as it relates to subjects as inflammatory as race or as tedious as the workplace.
The pandemic has shown that despite our habit of dividing ourselves along the lines of red vs. blue; Black vs. White; rich vs. poor; urban vs. rural; Christian vs. not; immigrant vs. not; or employed vs. not — the true division in this country is between the living and the dying.
Those among the living — politicians, policymakers, lobbyists, the cloistered plutocrats of academia and Hollywood and Big Law and Silicon Valley and Wall Street, as well as journalists — are now largely removed from concern. For most of them, the pandemic is more a curiosity than an emergency, more riddle than ruin. They may fret about infection or death, but they do not center their lives around true fear anymore (with the exception of those who have children under 5 or immunocompromised loved ones).
Instead, they’re contemplating Carbone reservations at Art Basel, orchestra seats on Broadway and volcano skiing in Hawaii.
By stark contrast, the dying — everyone from warehouse workers, to anti-vaxers, to undocumented migrants, to prisoners, to swaths of retail and hospitality laborers — are stuck in a parallel dimension whose terms (and segregation) are dictated by the living, ranging from no-holds-barred fearfulness to no-holds-barred fearlessness.
The dying’s disparate desperations all share one truth: They’re the signs of people on the brink of collapse, felled by either a brutal landlord, a bigoted cop, a savage boss or a rushed vaccine. America is a drain — ever more draining — and the pandemic has made it bigger and stronger for those who circle it. As Biden is fond of saying, the dying “fight like hell.” But the Bible is a story about how hell loses that fight.
The dying are watching various time-bombs tick down: on crushing student loans, on mass evictions, on deferred immigration status, on restricted health care, on expanded debt collection, on a housing boom that never applies to affordable or public housing. The only real outcomes are massacre or the amnesty of a never-gonna-happen domestic Marshall Plan, yet the living chime in — smug strategy supplanting soul-searching — griping that “nobody wants to work,” as they live off passive income or safety nets as varied as pensions, gerrymandering, trust funds or tenure.
So San Francisco is safe — unless you’re Asian.
Los Angeles is fun again — unless you’re Latino.
Texas is booming — unless you’re Native American.
And New York is back — unless you’re Black.
Even queer people, always reliably proud, only get vaccinated more than others because they were also infected more than others. It often seems we have learned nothing in our bipartisan rush to return to normalcy. Even as shows keep closing due to the coronavirus, Broadway is back to its “show must go on” toxicity, as if the past two years never happened, or worse — precisely because they did happen. Biden has enabled the pandemic even among the vaccinated.
“There’s no question in my mind that the Biden administration has done better and yet the results are still incredibly troubling and incredibly tragic. There are lessons to be learned,” Wachter said. “There are plenty of lessons to be learned from 2020 but there are also lessons to be learned from 2021 that are worth thinking hard about.”
Have we gotten more selfish? Or was that our country’s doing?
“Pandemics are not accidents. They develop non-randomly. Pathogens exploit vulnerabilities — in our political systems, our markets, our societies — so each age has its own pandemic, a mirror where societies can see their true face,” said Ruxandra Paul, a professor of political science at Amherst College who teaches a course on pandemic politics called “Democracy versus Disease.” “Over and over, people receive messages from political leaders that you buckle up and get it done to get back to normal. A sprint to normal instead of a marathon. There’s a lot of discussion on individual responsibility, trying to assign blame and push it to the citizen level. Government has been able to shift responsibility of governing onto citizens. Everyone ‘doing their part’ and assumptions about who should be doing what.”
Call it your covid footprint. But covid footprints are as contrived as carbon footprints (a scheme dreamed up by Ogilvy for BP). There’s nothing we can do that compares to sweeping, effective, tough-but-fair pandemic governance. No amount of scanning QR codes or wearing N95s can make up for the absence of such policy. Our immune systems cannot pull themselves up from their bootstraps.
Now that the pandemic becomes more and more his by the day, it’s worth reevaluating Biden’s presidency apart from comparisons to Trump’s.
Biden’s goal is clearly a pragmatism that only works in theory. His is not a moonshot America, only muddling, middling, meddling mediocrity. As with every other humanitarian crisis laid at the feet of the most powerful and prosperous nation in human history — hunger, homelessness, HIV, poverty, crisis migration, gunfire, for-profit incarceration, poisonous drinking water — on the pandemic, we’ve moved past the performance of stamping it out and have firmly pivoted to tamping it down.
Red or blue, Americans are unconditionally united in laziness, pettiness, selfishness and stubbornness. We debate minimum wages while ignoring that anything less than a living wage is a dying wage. Forget loving our neighbors. We don’t trust them. We don’t even care to know their names.
The path forward does not lie with increasing voter turnout or winning over either Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) or Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Pandemic success cannot be a one-party win. As with God, the coronavirus is neither Republican nor Democrat — not even American. Its defeat cannot be a triumph of politics, only over politics.
Soon, this country will mark the only thing worse than 1 million American pandemic deaths: a politician using that death toll to get elected or reelected in the midterms. That squawking, shameless political opportunist will surely not be alone in calling next year’s elections the most important of our lifetimes, yet again — unironically a matter of life and death, as if they know. “We’re in the fight of our lives,” they’ll say before asking for money-as-lifeblood. They’ll be someone’s hero, someone else’s villain and nobody’s public servant.
And who will you be in this year’s coming crossroads? Don’t answer now. Give it a minute. Give it 1,218.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.