It was a touching moment when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris held a candlelight vigil to mark a milestone that still seems unfathomable, the loss of 500,000 Americans to the coronavirus.
“For the loved ones left behind: I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there holding their hands, there’s a look in their eye and they slip away,” said the president who has had his share of family tragedies.
But there is a paradox, now that the recent news on Covid-19 has turned largely positive. And that has sparked accusations the administration is being way too pessimistic and needs to ease the state of emergency by this summer.
Yet it’s a tightrope act. Politically speaking, Biden doesn’t want to forecast better times ahead; better to keep expectations low and exceed them. Medically speaking, Anthony Fauci doesn’t want Americans to prematurely abandon masks and social distancing, lest another virus surge develops, as happened late last year.
This is a replay of the debate that raged during Donald Trump’s final year, when he and many Republicans denounced state lockdowns–“Liberate Michigan!”–and many Democrats accused them of putting profits over people.
Among the positive signs: Hospitalization rates have plummeted to the lowest level since early November. New cases are way down (under 60,000 on Monday), as are daily deaths (under 1,500 on Monday). These figures are still way too high, but are a far cry from the time when we would sometimes lose more than 4,000 Americans each day. Pfizer and Moderna say they can ramp up the 75 million doses they’ve delivered so far to 220 million shots by the end of March.
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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes: “Once the old and vulnerable are genuinely protected, the death toll drops, and vaccines are generally available, the toll that emergency measures take on just about everyone — business owners, college kids, churches, parents, school-age children, the lonely and the old — really will become worse than whatever coronavirus threat remains.”
It’s a shame that more schools aren’t open, though these are local decisions and teachers’ unions are sometimes an obstacle. It’s awful that so many people remain unemployed and restaurants and other businesses are closing. There are mental health issues as well for so many parents and kids stranded at home for so long.
Douthat says: “The danger of the overcautious, wait-for-Christmas public rhetoric from Biden and Fauci is that it provides cover and encouragement for fearful officials to extend the whole suite of emergency measures for many unnecessary months.”
But part of the reason for the reluctance is the way the virus kept roaring back during a year of Trumpian “turning the corner” rhetoric, especially after widespread travel and family gatherings for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there are still such X factors as variants of the virus.
When Fauci is asked in interviews whether Americans will still have to wear masks into 2022 and says it is possible that gets shorthanded into his advocating it. When CNN asked him whether the country cannot return to normality for a year or more, Fauci replied that he couldn’t say: “Because then it will be a sound bite that’s not true. I’m saying: We don’t know.”
Fauci is again becoming a target on the right, the criticism perhaps fueled by his comments that Trump didn’t help matters by playing down Covid.
“His job is to relay information to the public, not to threaten doom, or coax or trick us into doing things,” says National Review. Yet Fauci “is underplaying the effectiveness of the vaccine” and insisting on, to quote him, “a baseline that’s so low, it is virtually no threat.”
Says NR: “This is a disqualifying statement — an insane standard that no free society would ever indulge. For Fauci, herd immunity is effectively 99 percent.”
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Keep in mind that Fauci’s job, which he’s been doing since the Reagan administration, is to provide medical advice. He’s not a policymaker. He doesn’t run anything. Whether he’s being overly cautious or not, it’s the president, the governors, the mayors and the county executives who will decide the pace of reopening, along with individual Americans, based on their actions.
I want to embrace the notion that Covid will be largely vanquished by the summer. But at this point, only 6 percent of the country has been fully vaccinated. I hope better times prove to be a reality, not a mirage, and yet the simple fact remains that we’re not there yet.