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The worst pandemic in a century has outlasted our attention span

Congress refuses to do what it does best — throw money at problems

Last September, volunteers placed more than 640,000 flags in front of the Washington Monument to remember those who died in America during the pandemic. Now that number is at the 1 million mark.
Last September, volunteers placed more than 640,000 flags in front of the Washington Monument to remember those who died in America during the pandemic. Now that number is at the 1 million mark. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It is one of those hardy cliches of politics that true life is experienced only outside the Beltway. Somewhere between Peoria and Pocatello, real Americans do the kind of everyday stuff that makes them real Americans.

Actually, when it comes to COVID-19, life in the elite realms of Washington has gotten pretty doggone real.

In early April, more than 10 percent of the guests crowded next to each other at the exclusive Gridiron Dinner (including Attorney General Merrick B. Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina M. Raimondo) came down with the virus.

Rather than offering a cautionary warning that the pandemic is still with us, the Gridiron inspired the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to go for the gold. Nothing tops 2,600 Washington insiders and wayward celebrities crammed together so tightly that you could barely fit an off-the-record whisper between them.

Any record from the Correspondents’ Dinner will have to be accompanied by an asterisk, since many of those who tested positive may have been infected at other jam-packed events on that annual weekend when formally attired journalists bask in their own specialness.

In theory, these VIP super-spreader events might have goaded Congress to approve the administration’s stripped-down request for $22.5 billion for vaccines, tests and treatments.

Of course, in theory, unicorns might also be grazing on the Capitol grounds.

For weeks, Congress has been treating pandemic funding with all the urgency of an appropriations bill for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Maybe it will be combined with aid for Ukraine. Maybe it will stand alone. Maybe it will forever dance the limbo. The dominant mood remains: Who cares? COVID-19 is boring.

It is an impressive achievement for 2022 America. The worst pandemic in a century has outlasted our attention span.

By this standard, we would have stopped following World War II in early 1944 because all those battle reports from tiny islands in the Pacific were getting so tiresome.

This is the month when the death toll from the coronavirus in America is estimated to have hit the 1 million mark. That’s greater than the population of six states plus the District of Columbia. Those who died from the pandemic would have been entitled, in effect, to two Senate seats and maybe two House seats.

Instead, our political culture has consigned the dead to a cubbyhole marked “Yesterday’s News.” Half-forgotten, as well, are those millions who are suffering from the debilitating symptoms of long COVID-19.

It remains baffling why, when it comes to the pandemic, Congress refuses to do what it does best — throw money at problems.

With the national debt at $30 trillion, why are we quibbling over $22.5 billion? Why, when new strains of the virus can circle the globe in days, are we balking at spending an additional $5 billion on worldwide pandemic relief?

Maybe it was inevitable that the pandemic would become just another battleground in our polarized politics. But the undeniable truth is that the coronavirus minimizers (“It’s just like a mild case of the flu”) and the anti-vaxxers have won.

When the history of the nation’s surrender to COVID-19 is written, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle will deserve to be immortalized with a statue or her face on a postage stamp.

In mid-April, the 35-year-old conservative jurist — whose nomination was rammed through the Senate by Mitch McConnell in the waning days of the Trump administration — overturned the federal mask requirement on planes and trains.

This was the moment when the Biden administration gave up. Rather than offering a spirited legal response to this ruling by a runaway judge, the White House all but acknowledged that such federal mandates were fast becoming unenforceable.

Yes, we have all read odes to the wonders of airline ventilation systems. But anyone who has flown since the Wright brothers might recall those long uncomfortable minutes crammed in the aisles after landing, with the air flow reduced, waiting for the exit doors to open.

A few days after the mask mandate was lifted, I rode the Acela from New York to New Haven. This is an upscale travel option through one of the most heavily vaccinated parts of the nation, but only about 40 percent of the train passengers had any kind of face covering.

Oddly enough, one American institution is holding firm in its belief in masks and vaccines — the Broadway theater.

Not only do all shows require the audience to have masks, but ushers also insist that these coverings be worn rather than languidly dangling over chins. And some theaters require proof of vaccination to enter.

It may be retro. But as someone who saw a stirring revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” over the weekend, I felt like the theater has become the safest indoor spot in America.

The truth is — and I know you hate to hear it — we are not out of the woods yet when it comes to the virus. Maybe the Biden administration’s prediction of 100 million new cases this fall and winter is hyperbolic, but the evidence suggests that the virus is still capable of creating new, troubling mutations.

Without minimizing 9/11, COVID-19 has killed 300 times more Americans than terrorism. And yet no one has been suggesting that we dismantle all airport security and let everyone stroll onto a plane without any sort of security check.

Funding for testing, drugs and other forms of protection is just another form of security check. And given the impervious party-hardy mood in Washington and elsewhere, we will need all the help we can get.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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