Just as more Americans are getting vaccines, two fierce battles have broken out about Covid-19—one about the current danger and the other about the last administration.
It often seems that our political war over the pandemic consumes more energy than fighting the virus itself. And people are understandably confused about the nature of the tunnel we’re in and whether we can see any light at its end.
President Biden is once again pleading with people against a premature declaration of victory. And former president Trump is denouncing two of his top medical advisers for criticizing his handling of the crisis, as part of an effort to salvage their own reputations.
All this is unfolding as the director of the Centers for Disease Control is warning of “impending doom.”
While there is much reason for hope, says Rochelle Walensky, “right now, I’m scared.” Scared of a fourth wave of the virus in the next couple of months before a majority of the country is vaccinated. And, by implication, scared of governors, especially Republicans, lifting mask mandates and business restrictions.
“Please, this is not politics—reinstate the mandate,” Biden said. But of course, these are political decisions, balancing health risks and the need to revive the economy.
But the argument over what to do now rests in part on how we got here, 550,000 American deaths later. Trump issued a blistering statement about Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, former leaders of his virus task force, “two self-promoters trying to reinvent history to cover for their bad instincts and faulty recommendations… if it were up to them we’d currently be locked in our basements as our country suffered through a financial depression.”
The former president was triggered, to use a woke term, by Birx’s interview in a CNN documentary, and the continuing media blitz by Fauci, who is now Biden’s top Covid adviser. But Trump, as is his wont, went well beyond policy to rip the doctors personally.
He said that Birx, a “terrible medical adviser,” is “a proven liar with very little credibility left. Many of her recommendations were viewed as “pseudo-science,” and Dr. Fauci would always talk negatively about her and, in fact, would ask not to be in the same room with her.” Trump also cited an incident when Birx went to visit family on Thanksgiving after urging the public not to travel.
As for Fauci, Trump remains fixated on the 78-year-old having thrown out a lousy first pitch at a Washington Nationals game. Fauci “said he was an athlete in college but couldn’t throw a baseball even close to home plate, it was a ‘roller.’”
He also said Fauci had done a “fake” interview on CNN—I don’t know, I saw him on camera—and that “the king of ‘flip-flops’ and moving the goalposts to make himself look as good as possible.”
So what did the two of them say? Birx told CNN there was an “excuse” for the first 100,00 deaths from the original surge, but “all of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.” She said she had a “very uncomfortable” call with Trump last summer after warning about the virus on the network and was told she had to stay off national TV “because the president might see it.”
Birx is drawing enormous flak for speaking out now, when it’s too late, rather than challenging Trump when she had some authority. Some say she should have quit, though it’s not clear what that would have accomplished. Fauci told CNN that Birx should have done more but was in a difficult situation.
Fauci is seen as having diplomatically battled the president last year and has been through many of these cycles. After the infection disease expert did a “60 Minutes” interview last October, Trump called him a “disaster” and said “people are tired of hearing Fauci and all these idiots.”
Today, by contrast, Biden backs Walensky when she says things like “impending doom.” But is it impending?
The plateau period is over. The seven-day average of new cases topped 63,000 for the first time in nearly a month, says the Washington Post. In nine states, the jump has been more than 40 percent in two weeks, says the New York Times. Michigan alone has seen a 57 rise in Covid cases, and a 47 percent increase in hospitalizations, in the past week.
I have no doubt that much of this is tied to the warmer weather, spring break gatherings and pent-up frustrations over the past year. Virus variants may also be a factor, as well as states such as Michigan easier limits on business activity.
In short, it would be a shame after a year of isolation and lockdown if we had another surge just as enough vaccines are becoming available to protect most Americans by May or June. But there are tradeoffs, as there have been since the dawn of the pandemic. In the end, Biden—and the governors—will be judged on how they handle this crucial period, just as Trump and his advisers were judged on 2020.