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Our imperfect understanding of the pandemic

Travelers line up at a check-in counter at

Travelers line up at a check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Nov. 27, after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of the new COVID-19 omicron variant. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/PHILL MAGAKOE

Maybe in retrospect, a half century from now, as historians look at all the facts, figures and long-term outcomes, we will understand the pandemic crisis, how it got started, what policies worked and whether honesty and science were sometimes set aside. As for right now, did President Joe Biden do the right thing by banning travel from southern Africa, the apparent birthplace of a new COVID-19 variant called omicron?

Yes, say some who note this virus is spreading fast. Others say no, arguing that we don’t yet know whether it’s a terrible danger or nothing much. Excuse me, but do you refuse to put on a seat belt in your car because you don’t know if you will have an accident? Presidential advisers are reported by the New York Times to have discussed the matter with Biden, saying a ban would not stop the virus’s entry into our homeland. OK, said Biden and others, but even a little extra time could conceivably be consequential.

Politics may play a role here. Forget the ban and encounter tragedy and what will the public think? Of course, more and more, people want to return to normal, maybe fearing that a travel ban could signal such things as lockdowns to come even though Biden says there will be no more lockdowns. It is meanwhile the case that even a short-term travel ban will do economic harm to eight countries while being yet another hit on the worldwide supply chain. America could suffer, too.

Another political factor could be that Biden is trying to recuperate from what he said during the 2020 campaign about President Donald Trump’s China travel ban, namely by referring to it while accusing Trump of "hysteria, xenophobia and fearmongering."

Still another issue for Biden has been his mandate that workers in businesses of more than 100 workers should be vaccinated or regularly tested if they want to keep their jobs. His overall purpose was right even if he should have relied on Congress to pass a law with somewhat different rules instead of barking orders. What is on his side are statistics showing that unvaccinated people are many times more likely to be infected than the vaccinated.

Something like 80% of American adults have received at least one shot, and the vaccine has saved us from what could have been more a massacre than a crisis. The question is not whether personal freedom is at stake. The question is whether you will get a job in which you could infect others with a chance of grave illness or even death.

It’s true that youthful people without underlying conditions are unlikely to be made terribly sick, but they can be and not everyone in a workplace is youthful or necessarily free of underlying conditions. Vaccinated people can become infected and transmit the infection partly because of the delta variant, but even ex-President Donald Trump has unleashed boos at a rally when he cheered for vaccinations.

Trump is sometimes said to have killed everyone who died under his watch, a grotesque stupidity, especially considering his warp speed program. It sufficiently undid bureaucratic entanglement to produce vaccines at a record rate, then saving vast numbers of lives.

Even with those vaccines, many have died under Biden’s watch, but presidents are just one factor among many in dealing with COVID-19. Biden is learning as much because of federal courts putting at least a temporary stop to his mandates. An encouragement of the moment is how those who have natural immunity through prior infection are doing well in escaping serious infection, a contribution of nature.

Despite omicron, new virus surges overseas and a host of economic worries, such as inflation, supply chain mishaps and unfilled jobs, much is returning to normal. It is pretty easy these days to find toilet paper in stores. Histories may fail to observe that as they nevertheless correct a host of misunderstandings.

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