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It’s time for a Christmas truce in the COVID wars

The best way to permanently contain the virus is for Congress to keep spending money

COVID-19 funding should be a top priority, but instead it’s a political football in the lame-duck Congress, Shapiro writes. Above, a pharmacist administers a vaccine last November in Washington, D.C.
COVID-19 funding should be a top priority, but instead it’s a political football in the lame-duck Congress, Shapiro writes. Above, a pharmacist administers a vaccine last November in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Imagine the reaction if doctors discovered a new disease that was killing more than 2,000 Americans a week, hospitalizing more than 20,000 people, and creating debilitating long-term aftereffects for a significant percentage of those who had seemingly recovered. 

This frightening new malady would dominate the headlines in a way that would make Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter seem about as important as the announcement of a new executive vice president at the local electric company.

One could just picture the waves of relief when word got out that there was a vaccine against the disease that would slash the death rate and the hospitalizations while also lessening the chances of a protracted illness. 

Of course, things have not been that simple as we are approaching year three of the COVID wars. 

Not a single sentence can be said about the devastating virus without triggering an angry response referring to something that happened in 2020. Everyone from the most cautious public health official to the most militant anti-vaxxer has a quiver filled with anger and resentments over the past.

Nothing better symbolizes the discord and dysfunction surrounding our political response to COVID-19 than the way that the Biden administration is desperately scrounging for a $9.25 billion appropriation to curtail the virus in the lame-duck session of Congress. 

Can you grasp how small $9.25 billion is as part of a nearly $6 trillion federal budget? Or against the backdrop of the $31 trillion national debt?

In metaphorical terms, we’re not talking about pocket change. We’re talking about a forgotten nickel that rolled under the bed five years ago. 

But the Republicans are vehemently against any new COVID-19 spending — even for the development of better vaccines and for studies of the long-haul aspects of the virus. 

The GOP’s reasons range from the slightly valid (some prior federal funding has been misspent or misallocated) to the deranged (hatred for vaccines and masks). But the unshakable reality is that the House Republicans in the incoming Congress will probably block any future COVID-19 funding, whatever the state of the nation’s health is in 2023 and 2024. 

If only there were a way of declaring a Christmas truce in the COVID wars. 

If only there were a way of starting from scratch and confronting the reality of the virus today without becoming mired in the bitterness of the past. 

Let me stress that I don’t believe that the errors of judgment on both sides of the battle against the pandemic have been equivalent. 

There has been no parallel to right-wing extremists preferring random cures lifted from the internet over medically approved vaccines. Or their comparing mandated masking in confined indoor spaces to jackbooted Nazis.

But I also cringe over the mistakes of judgment that public health officials have made since early 2020. 

The initial downplaying of the use of masks gravely undermined the credibility of official announcements. The closing of outdoor spaces, such as beaches and parks, proved to be foolhardy. And shutting down the schools for a protracted period failed to factor in the dire educational and behavioral costs of such panicked closings. 

But perhaps the biggest and most lasting mistake that the federal government made was its failure to communicate the tentative nature of our initial knowledge of the fast-evolving virus. 

I just finished reading “Lucy by the Sea,” a novel set during the early days of the pandemic by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout. What haunted me in reading it was remembering the widespread hopes from early 2021 that being vaccinated would save you from ever again worrying about COVID-19.

The political consequences have been devastating from the realization that vaccination — for all its benefits against severe disease — does not guarantee a carefree return to the COVID-free habits of 2019. 

In hindsight, the government should have sponsored a massive public education campaign — on par with the crusade against smoking — to make the case for continued vaccination and boosters as the delta and omicron variants emerged in 2021.

Instead, information dribbled out in a piecemeal fashion without a uniform and consistent message from Washington. President Joe Biden complicated matters by prematurely giving way to the political instinct to declare the pandemic over even though cases have remained unacceptably high.

It is unfortunate that only now is the Biden administration pushing for a public relations campaign to convince Americans, particularly those over 65, to get the latest booster shots. But this belated effort is coming at a time when too many Americans — egged on by the right wing — have grown cynical about any efforts to thwart COVID-19. 

Maybe America could never have dealt with a pandemic that has dragged on and on for nearly three years. The suffering grows boring as we become oblivious to it, much as we shake off 45,000 traffic deaths each year. After a while, even minimal sacrifices, such as wearing high-quality masks indoors, become unendurable. 

The best way to permanently contain COVID-19 is to keep spending money. Better indoor ventilation in public places, especially schools, is vital. So, too, is a continuing supply of government-funded test kits to spur early detection of cases. And, hopefully, we are no more than a year or so away from vaccines that will offer far more potent protection against the virus.  

But the fear remains that COVID-19 funding will become the political football of the lame-duck Congress. Instead of Americans getting shots, it will be all cheap shots as Republicans in Congress continue to play politics with a once-a-century pandemic.  

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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