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Going Viral

Democrats Can’t Keep Ignoring Covid in 2024

A sudden surge of the virus is a stark reminder of two things: The pandemic isn’t over, and it could be part of the referendum on the Biden presidency.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My holiday experience probably resembled that of many others: waiting in line at the airport, listening to the hacks of people coughing all around me, mostly unmasked. The cognitive dissonance feels hard to overstate. We are still officially in a pandemic, even now, four years since the novel coronavirus first emerged. We know that Covid-19 is airborne and that wearing a mask is the most effective way to prevent airborne particles from being transmitted. We know that 1,600 people a week are currently dying from Covid-19 (and more than 2,000 last week), and that it’s no ordinary flu, with tens of millions of Americans and counting experiencing long-term debilitating symptoms.

Despite all we could have learned about how a broken system left us vulnerable to this virus, despite the clear fixes that might protect us against future calamity, and despite the sense of solidarity toward helping others stay well that accompanied the early pandemic, it feels as though we’ve learned nothing from the experience.

The dissonance perhaps hits harder for me, because I’ve struggled with long Covid symptoms for over three and a half years, as I first recounted in The New Republic in June 2020, in an article naïvely titled, “Will My Long Covid Symptoms Ever End?” Today, symptoms like exercise intolerance, tingling, circulation problems, overactive allergic responses, and shortness of breath have persisted. Though I’m able to manage most of my symptoms through a combination of about 15 daily medications and supplements, physical therapy, and avoiding strenuous activities, my quality of life and ability to work have diminished greatly. (And I’m far better off than some long Covid patients, who are bedbound.) I don’t have the luxury of ignoring Covid, as much of society has, following the lead of the Biden administration, which pledged to take a different approach than his predecessor did.

This didn’t have to be an all-or-nothing choice. By framing Covid precautions as either “lockdown” or “a free for all,” the Biden administration has missed an opportunity to better protect its citizens and send clearer messages around Covid and the risk of long Covid, and promote the kind of commonsense mitigations that create no significant disruptions to “normal” life. With the 2024 election coming up, it must do better.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stopped counting Covid-19 cases, according to wastewater data—which emerged early on as an accurate tracker of the ebbs and flows of the virus—we are currently in one of the biggest surges of the pandemic, amid the spread of a new variant, JN-1, as the virus keeps mutating. More than three-quarters of U.S. hospital beds are currently in use due to Covid hospitalizations. Uptake of the most recent booster shot, which should help to protect against the new variant and lower the risk of severe cases and the odds of getting long Covid, hovers around 19 percent.

Meanwhile, the most recent White House response to a question about whether they had any guidance for hospitals, some of which have brought back mitigation protocols in response to the most recent Covid spike, came courtesy of press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre: “Hospitals, communities, states, they have to make their own decisions. That’s not something we get involved in,” she replied, appearing exasperated.

“We are in possibly the second-biggest surge of the pandemic if you look at wastewater levels,” said Dr. Monica Verduzco-Gutierrez, who runs a long-Covid clinic at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and has had ongoing Covid symptoms since August 2022. “There is no urgency to this. No news. No discussion in Congress. There is no education.”

In the first few years of the pandemic, concern over the transmission and mitigation of Covid fell on largely partisan lines. When Joe Biden entered office in January 2021, he promised to “follow science,” unlike the disastrous, delayed, and dangerous approach to the pandemic led by his predecessor, Donald Trump. For a while, things were looking up, with effective vaccines available for free to the public and interventions like Paxlovid becoming available. Biden promoted new initiatives and supported funding for Covid research and long-Covid research. Unfortunately, today, funding is drying up. Republicans are determined to block anything that looks like new spending on Covid; Democrats are seemingly content to let this antisocial stance slide.

“[Biden’s] administration has the potential to lead a robust and inclusive response to the pandemic,” said Cynthia Adinig, who has suffered from long Covid since March 2020 and has since become a prominent expert and patient advocate with the BIPOC Equity Agency. “However, in the last year of his administration there still remains much need for improvement.”

Since the Biden administration declared the end of the national emergency in May, Americans across the political spectrum have largely followed the example set by the government and entirely disposed of any level of Covid precautions. Liberal and left-wing outlets have participated in the normalizing of Covid too, dismissing or even ostracizing people who still take precautions as if they are tin-hat conspiracy theorists. “We can’t be in lockdown forever,” has become a common refrain, as if wearing a mask on the subway constitutes “lockdown.”

In September, Biden himself participated in the spread of this kind of harmful disinformation when he declared the pandemic “over” on 60 Minutes. “If you notice, no one’s wearing masks,” he said. “Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape.” This is, essentially, governing via “vibes”—so much for “following the science.”

And while the administration heavily encouraged vaccination in spring 2021, booster rates are embarrassingly low due to sparse, muddled, and unclear messaging about how vaccination can lower the risk of long Covid and serious cases. Moreover, turning vaccination over to the whims of private insurance companies has made access to new vaccines more complicated and costly.

The administration could have set in place permanent measures to protect Americans from Covid-19 and other zoonotic diseases, such as normalizing staying home and wearing a mask when sick or in congested areas, ensuring regular vaccination, investing in HEPA air filtration in public spaces, making Covid testing more readily available, conducting contact tracing, and continuing to track Covid rates so that the public could be well advised of periodic spikes. It could have pressured airlines, who tacitly encourage people to fly sick, to waive cancellation and change fees in cases where the choice is spreading Covid through the friendly skies or giving customers a chance to simply rearrange their travel.

By ignoring Covid, Democrats are abandoning the over 16 million Americans who have long Covid, as well as the swaths of people getting mysteriously ill more and more often, especially those in settings such as schools and hospitals, as well as the some 25 percent of our population who are disabled—a number that has grown significantly since the pandemic began. It’s also a population that’s constantly in flux. As Tom Scocca recently wrote in a New York piece describing his own recent health problems, “The able and the disabled aren’t two different kinds of people but the same people at different times.”

As Adinig said, “I don’t think Democrats in office fully understand the longstanding ripple effects of the pandemic. These issues are being pushed to the side in hopes they will go away on their own or be someone else’s problem later.”

The consequences of discarding all Covid precautions are becoming clearer, as more people get repeated infections and long-term symptoms, amid an alarming spike in heart problems among healthy young people. People are getting sick more often not due to the myth of “immunity debt,” which posits that the lack of exposure to other people during lockdown has made people less able to fight off infections (three years later), but because Covid weakens the immune system. Each time someone contracts Covid, the odds of long-term complications increase.

Absenteeism in schools is on the rise, with one in three public school students chronically absent. A recent study found that the risk of long Covid for children is 16 percent after just one infection. Adinig, whose son has long Covid, is passionate about the need to educate parents more about the risk of long Covid in children and measures like air filtration that could better protect them at school.

Gwendolyn Hill, a previously healthy UCLA student, got long Covid from her third infection in June 2023. Now she can hardly walk the 15 minutes from her apartment to campus. She never expected it to happen to her, she told me in September. “If you do not have long-standing health issues and you have access to health care typically, then there is a lot of invincibility complex that comes into play.”

The impulse to ignore or downplay Covid is understandable. It’s unpleasant, scary, and inconvenient to think about. “As a society, people are intentionally putting themselves as far away from any Covid-speak as possible so they can live in their delusional wall that everything’s OK,” Adinig told me last fall.

“People in general have forgotten what it means to stay home from work or wear high-quality masks when they’re sick (with anything),” Verduzco-Gutierrez added. But this has consequences: “We’re going to have continued spread of the virus and sequela related to long Covid. This is going to be a large cost burden to society in the long run, and this is something that Congress has to realize,” she said.

The normalization of Covid reinfections has made talking about the pandemic, or, God forbid, taking precautions, feel like a social taboo, making it increasingly difficult to expect or ask for any level of mitigations in work and social settings. As Julia Doubleday wrote in her excellent Substack post in December, “The political project of normalizing transmitting COVID and casting basic, scientific mitigations as bad, weird, mean, stupid, and impossible is a fantastic coup for the right.”

In 2024, there must be more pressure on Democrats to support commonsense public health measures to prevent Covid and the future wave of zoonotic diseases that are likely to be unleashed by climate change. If the left wants to win, this election year and beyond, they need to set themselves apart from Republicans in their stance on Covid, modeling themselves as supporters of science and public health. It is not only a public health issue but a class issue, with ramifications for health care at large and the overall well-being of society. It has been disheartening to see even the most progressive members of Congress fail to speak out on behalf of those suffering from long Covid, especially when its impacts are so closely related to economic, social, and racial justice.

Democrats could model commonsense Covid precautions and champion some of the positive—and popular—policies that accompanied the early pandemic, such as mandated sick pay, which wouldn’t force workers into the difficult position of working while sick and transmitting Covid or losing pay or even their jobs. Such issues are compounded for uninsured, underinsured, low-income workers and people of color, particularly as the cost of living rises and medical expenses increase.

Thanks no doubt in part to Republicans who politicized mask-wearing so much in the early pandemic, Democrats in government have hesitated to mention the dreaded m-word. But they could easily advocate for a harm-reduction approach to face coverings, modeling wearing masks in crowded indoor settings and public transportation, showing that masking in many high-risk settings is possible without disrupting social life.

Of course, with their thin majorities and limits due to filibuster rules, Democrats are hamstrung in some ways on a legislative level to pass critical funding for Covid and long-Covid research, prevention, and trials, Adinig pointed out. “The lack of funding for these policy changes, essential for tackling the pandemic effectively, is a substantial obstacle.” But Democrats could—and should—fight harder instead of cowing to Republicans. Indeed, recent pressure at the local level in many states has resulted in the reinstatement of mask mandates in hospital settings across the country.

A huge missed opportunity too lies in air filtration efforts, which could protect children in schools and others in health care and other crowded settings without being “obtrusive,” as Adinig put it. Focus on this must be amplified as a sustainable long-term intervention to protect ourselves and others, not only from Covid but from other viruses and poor air quality. Yet students and parents have resorted to making their own DIY air filters, in the absence of legislation or more funding to keep kids safe at school.

The shadow of the pandemic, whether we like it or not, still hangs over us. By deluding ourselves into pretending nothing is wrong, we’re playing roulette with our own lives and with each other, and allowing new variants to develop more frequently. Our response to Covid mitigation doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but even basic interventions are now being dismissed on both sides of the aisle. Joe Biden said it wouldn’t be like this. And yet, what we’re seeing today feels scarcely different from the denialism and diminishment of far-right Trump-ites who once laughed at our masks. Are we content to stand among their ranks?