The pandemic isn’t over until it’s over for everyone
Two weeks ago, Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, made a remarkable misstatement that received remarkably little attention. It will no doubt get less now with the end of Roe looming.
Still, it’s worth reflecting on.
Fauci believes the US is “out of the full-blown explosive pandemic phase" and "in a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity,” per the Post.
How do we know this is a flub?
He quickly backpedaled.
“The world is still in a pandemic. There’s no doubt about that. Don’t get any misinterpretation of that. We are still experiencing a pandemic.”
He seems to have meant to communicate that the US was moving out of an acute and "full-blown" phase of the pandemic into something perhaps a bit less threatening.
It may not have been Fauci's best move.
For one thing, covid infections continue to creep up around the US. It's nowhere near the omicron peak, to be sure, but experts continue to worry about the pace of covid mutation. They warn that there's no guarantee the next wave will be better than the last. That puts Fauci's declaration immediately at odds with the science.
Worse, it was staggeringly tone-deaf, coming a week before the US reached a grim milestone of 1 million deaths by the covid:
'Each of those people touched hundreds of other people,' said Diana Ordonez, whose husband, Juan Ordonez, died in April 2020 at age 40, five days before their daughter Mia's fifth birthday. 'It's an exponential number of other people that are walking around with a small hole in their heart.'
As if that weren’t enough, at least one expert noted that Fauci's words are sure to be misinterpreted by lay people who don't catch nuances. That's not to mention the mendacious anti-vaxxers who pounce on ill-formulated statements as proof the need for concern is past.
Misinterpretation could have obvious consequences, such as fueling the rejection of mask mandates. It might have less obvious ramifications like hastening the end of the declaration of a public health emergency, which would stop free vaccines, end CDC collection of covid data and potentially throw 13 million people off Medicaid.
More broadly, whenever someone drops a blanket declaration that the pandemic is over, it pushes people living with disabilities and other vulnerable populations quite literally to the margins.
As Beatrice Adler-Bolton points out, for all the talk of the mask mandate being lifted on airplanes, the biggest impact will be on public transportation: the immunocompromised, the disabled and other vulnerable people may be faced with life-threatening commutes.
From there, the circles only get wider.
The elderly are still at much higher risk of death by the covid. The "high risk" category is surprisingly broad, including people with diabetes, asthma, obesity or high blood pressure. And, of course, millions of people around the world have not yet been vaccinated.
Every one of us is connected by some degree to someone in at least one of these categories, for whom the pandemic is very much not over.
That's if we don't fit into one of them ourselves.
Whether the pandemic has run its course as a matter of epidemiology, as a matter for us, very little has changed. Those for whom the danger has waned are still called to keep community with those for whom it is a live, active threat. The American polity must honor its voices, tend to the needs of all its members and govern itself with an eye not just to the majority but with consideration for the most vulnerable.
The alternative is not an abandonment to heartless conservatism.
It’s not the halfway covenant of neoliberalism.
It’s collective suicide, of a sort.
The boundaries between vulnerable and strong are never as defined as might be supposed, for one thing. Every infection among the vulnerable is an opportunity for another among those who would like to think of themselves as strong. That is a particularly frightening fact, given the prospects of up to 100 million infections next fall and winter.
The pandemic is not over till it’s over for all of us.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton argues that society has the tools to allow people not just to survive the pandemic, but "to thrive in spite of it."
We could choose otherwise than to make the most vulnerable bear the cost of an ongoing pandemic by rushing to declare it over.
It is to our eternal shame that we almost certainly will not.
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