On Saturday afternoon, weather permitting, the U.S. will burn $4 billion on Artemis I, NASA's new rocket to the moon. It's the opening curtain for a return to manned moon exploration that may cost more than $90 billion by 2025. (Technical problems delayed its originally scheduled takeoff on Monday).
I use the term "burn" advisedly. This single-use rocket will fly only once. This test flight, with mannequins subbing for astronauts, will orbit the moon for six weeks, travel more than a million miles and then drop into the ocean.
There may indeed be valid scientific and social reasons for relaunching the U.S. space program. But this entire project — to land astronauts on the moon, largely in preparation for a later mission to Mars — has been termed financially "unsustainable" by NASA's own inspector general.
Yet right now there's far less money in the federal till to protect Americans from preventable deaths from COVID-19. Yes, that pandemic, the one we would prefer to ignore but that fatigue and magical thinking can't erase. We're still losing hundreds of Americans every single day from COVID-related deaths.
For months, Joe Biden has been tussling with lawmakers over his request for $22.5 billion in pandemic aid to ensure an adequate supply of vaccines, tests and treatments.
Republicans in Congress balked, predictably enough, contending that the trillions of dollars the administration has thrown at the pandemic so far should suffice. If you're sympathetic to that point of view, consider that you don't hear them attacking Republican leaders in 21 states who went to court to challenge restrictions on their use of federal pandemic funds. How did they want to use the money, you ask? They wanted to cut state taxes. Seriously.
In June, the White House, worried that it wouldn't be able to pay for enough booster vaccines targeting the omicron subvariants of COVID, effectively robbed Peter to pay Paul. The administration took $10 billion that was earmarked for COVID tests, protective equipment and ventilators, and used those funds to buy updated vaccines and new treatments like Paxlovid.
In the meantime, as this fight over funding plays out on Capitol Hill, the effects are already beginning to be felt. Free at-home rapid tests will no longer be available from the federal government after this week. The government will also stop offering free COVID vaccines early next year, making it even more difficult for uninsured or under-insured individuals to access them.
Last year, there was far more federal support for outreach programs and vaccines were free. Even so, fewer than half of Americans eligible for current vaccine boosters have received them, and less than a third have been fully boosted. Now that new targeted boosters will be available, renewed efforts to reach more people are even more important.
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This deliberate inattention to public health is downright criminal. It shames our status in the world. Over the past year, the U.S. has reported about 1,200 deaths per million residents — a figure nearly three times higher than Canada's and almost double that of the U.K.
This stupid fight over more federal support is just one glaring symptom of a national culture whose leaders believe that they can wish their way out of a pandemic that has proven to be both clever and resilient: Bring on the tax cuts and the moon rockets! Let the good times roll!
When the omicron boosters get final approval, I'm pretty confident that my spouse and I will have the means and opportunity to get them. We now have access to effective drugs should we get infected, and a good primary care doctor.
But in this standoff between the administration and Republican members of Congress, the people who suffer have the least power. For hundreds of thousands of Americans, this money is crucial. Without free tests and vaccines, and without ready access to clinics and outreach programs, far too many will continue to fall through the cracks.
Our magical thinking will have consequences. As much as we may wish the pandemic were over, experts fear a winter surge that could cause 100 million new infections.
As with NASA rockets that can't get off the ground unless every part of their vast machinery is sound, our national health — not to mention our financial well-being — depends on the health of all Americans, not just the privileged. What should we call prioritizing profligate moon exploration and destructive tax cuts over preventing many thousands more pandemic deaths? Pure lunacy.