President Biden’s declaration last week that the “pandemic is over” kicked off a flurry of debate over whether that’s actually true. As an epidemiologist and former city health director, I have opinions. Pandemics are kind of like hurricanes. A lull could mean we’re at the end of the hurricane—or we could be in the eye of it. Right now, there’s plenty of reason to believe that we are nearing the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we just can’t say with certainty.
More importantly, in the debate over whether the pandemic still exists, we’ve lost sight of the broader society-wide consequences of Covid. And in the rush to declare the pandemic over, the administration may be foreclosing on the political will to address them.
Let’s start with the kids. They are not all right. There’s a massive learning loss that come from the time not spent in school. While I disagree with the way that learning loss was weaponized to oppose basic efforts to keep kids and teachers safe in schools, the evidence that it has occurred is still clear. According to the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, even a month less of in-school learning in the 2021–22 school year cost students the equivalent of seven to 10 weeks of math knowledge. The losses have been far worse among America’s most marginalized kids, most often Black or brown. More concerning, anxiety and depression among teens is getting far worse. Nearly half of teens reported feeling sad or hopeless in the past year, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Much of this rise is attributable to the way the pandemic ripped kids from their schools and left them in homes where the stresses of the pandemic often reverberated into higher rates of abuse.
But the kids aren’t the only ones suffering. The U.S. Public Health Services Task Force, the government arm responsible for making our nation’s broad public health recommendations, just recommended universal anxiety screening for all Americans under 65. That’s a sea change from the past, implying that anxiety is so widespread that literally every American under 65 should be checked for it. Nearly 42 percent of Americans have symptoms consistent with depression or anxiety, up from 36 percent before the pandemic.
Our public health system is reeling too. Though monkeypox cases are receding, there should never have been an outbreak of this magnitude in the first place. Unlike Covid, which was novel at the time it emerged, airborne, highly transmissible, and quick to evolve, monkeypox is the “101” of viruses. Monkeypox requires sustained close contact to spread. Its laggard incubation period gives us a full 21 days to intervene between exposure and disease. And we already had a safe and effective vaccine for it. Yet our public health institutions were so depleted from a years-long battle with Covid that they simply lacked the wherewithal to act in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, we’re only beginning to understand the long-term
consequences of a Covid infection. Despite cases and hospitalizations being on
the decline, millions of Americans are still suffering from Covid. They are
experiencing lingering symptoms of fatigue, malaise, brain fog, or chronic
pain. And for them, there’s no “pandemic is over” in sight. We are only
scratching the surface on how to treat long Covid—and we haven’t even begun to
think about what the system-wide consequences will be for the American
health care system, workplace disability system, or long-term care.
Which gets us back to the main point here: Biden’s declaration was no mistake. It was an effort to turn the page ahead of a contentious midterm election in which Democrats absolutely must prevail. He’s betting that voters will credit his administration with this victory, however premature, and that it’ll redound to the benefit of Democratic candidates. And honestly, I understand his logic. Because the irony, of course, is that any future that has us truly addressing the long tail of this pandemic’s consequences runs through a Democratic victory in the fall. Republicans declared the pandemic over a long time ago, if their version of history includes it ever having happened at all.
And yet I worry that in having declared the pandemic over, in having closed the chapter in which we work to address its consequences, we will lack the political will to reopen it. The political narrative that Biden is pursuing, the one where we conquered the pandemic, divorces all of the circumstances above from the life-altering historical event that created them. And that jumbles the effort to go back and fix it. That’s already happening. The administration has a standing request for billions more in funds to battle the ongoing pandemic—for testing, treatment, and vaccines. Biden’s premature declaration undercut his administration’s own request. Yet while the possibility of another surge is unclear, the ongoing consequences of this pandemic are certain. We can’t afford to undercut the effort to address them too.