Americans woke up on Black Friday this year to more than a food hangover and big crowds at the malls. Along with the rest of the world, we were greeted with news of a frightening new COVID variant that appears to have characteristics that may make it more dangerous than the previous strains. After the stock market fell out of bed, the news networks went on full "breaking news alerts" all day, before governments around the world reacted with travel bans. Within hours, the World Health Organization named the new variant Omicron, B.1.1.529, and put it into the category of "variant of concern" citing the possibility that it has greater potential to escape prior immunity. Great. Just what we need.
Over the weekend, things calmed down a bit as the experts weighed in and told everyone to be patient and wait for real evidence before panicking. Most seemed to think that the vaccines would still have at least some effect and there were even those who suggested that the news that 10% of people testing positive in the Netherlands following flights out of South Africa, where the mutation is believed to have originated, may mean that Omicron is actually less virulent than those that came before.
The fact is that we just don't know much at the moment.
Quite a few public health experts sounded alarms that the U.S. and other countries are needlessly banning people from certain African countries, arguing that it unfairly punishes them even though the virus doesn't respect borders or passports in any case. As critics noted, there are already Omicron cases in Europe and Asia — and it's almost assured that it's in the U.S. already.
Still, as Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times points out in an excellent piece on Sunday, a time-limited travel ban buys a little time for countries to prepare for this new strain if it does turn out to be a major setback. She offers a number of suggestions, from mass rapid testing (apparently, this new variant can easily be detected by the standard PCR test which is a lucky break) to getting vaccine manufacturers working on a specific vaccine immediately. In fact, Pfizer put out a statement that they could get a new vaccine online in about three months. Her point is that this early warning will be of little use if all countries do with it is offer what she calls "pandemic theater" instead of a tangible response that's flexible enough to pull back quickly if this fizzles out. That seems like sound advice and we'll find out soon enough if all this is going to be necessary.
But the fact is that you can't divorce politics from this problem.
For all the concern about punishing countries with travel bans, I don't think there is a lot of choice in moments like these. As public health expert Dr. Leana Wen told CNN, "imagine the counterfactual if the Biden administration did not at this point and there were a major spike in cases due to this variant, what would we have said? We would say they should have taken action much more promptly."
All you have to do is look back to last week to see how perilous the politics of COVID have become. Consider the Wall St. Journal editorial that ripped the Biden administration for failing to contain COVID as it passed the milestone of more deaths in 2021 than 2020. (This is a fatuous complaint, of course. The virus didn't take off until April of 2020 and the worst spike, so far, began peaking in January of 2021, just as Biden was taking office.) The editorial excoriated Biden for running on the promise of dealing more effectively with the crisis than Trump did and now it turns out that people died in great numbers anyway.
This is an old Republican trick. They leave the country in shambles when they are voted out of office, obstruct the Democrats every step of the way when they try to fix it and then blame them for failing to fulfill their promises. And they're doing it again:
The Times' David Leonhardt recently laid out the tragic consequences of this cynical strategy:
The gap in Covid's death toll between red and blue America has grown faster over the past month than at any previous point.
In October, 25 out of every 100,000 residents of heavily Trump counties died from Covid, more than three times higher than the rate in heavily Biden counties (7.8 per 100,000). October was the fifth consecutive month that the percentage gap between the death rates in Trump counties and Biden counties widened...
The true explanation is straightforward: The vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing severe Covid, and almost 40 percent of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared with about 10 percent of Democratic adults.
That's a hell of a thing to do just to make Biden look bad but, apparently, there is nothing Republicans and their propagandists in the right-wing media won't do to secure power in Washington again.
And lest anyone forget, the Trump administration's record on the pandemic was nothing short of horrific. From his obsession with not testing in order to "keep his numbers down" to pushing snake oil cures and sabotaging public health measures, his performance was an epic failure that ended up persuading his own followers that they should ignore the experts and listen to quacks and con artists instead. The results speak for themselves. They would rather die than get life-saving vaccines.
The Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which is chaired by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., has been holding hearings and releasing documents showing that it was even worse than we knew in real time. Trump senior officials repeatedly leaned on the Centers for Disease Control to keep the public uninformed about the pandemic for political reasons. David Corn of Mother Jones reminds us of this horrific data point:
As researchers from UCLA noted in March 2021, the United States could have avoided 400,000 COVID deaths if the Trump administration had implemented a more effective health strategy that included mask mandates, social distancing, and robust testing guidelines. [Dr. Deborah]Birx made a similar statement at that time.
Blaming President Biden for the ongoing COVID tragedy when efforts to contain it have been sabotaged at every step of the way by Republicans is predictable. It's what they do. And anyone who says that this is not something that the administration has to consider when they try to fashion responses to the crisis, whether it's desperately trying to persuade these anti-vaxxers to save their own lives or reacting to a possibly dangerous new variant, are not living in the real world.
This obscene dynamic is responsible for the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and the stunning fact that despite our advanced health care system and easy access to life-saving vaccines, we have still lost more people in this pandemic than any other country in the world. You cannot blame the administration for acting with an abundance of caution under these circumstances.