As a candidate, Joe Biden did his best to show us how an American president could — and should — handle the coronavirus pandemic. He always wore a mask and called the act of wearing one "patriotic." He practiced social distancing — and when he forgot, his wife, Jill, physically moved him to maintain the requisite six feet from the reporters he was addressing. He did most of his fundraising virtually. He defended Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious-diseases expert, who became a favorite punching bag for the president's supporters. Unlike President Donald Trump, who mocks mask-wearers and has approached the pandemic as a personal insult or a nuisance best ignored, Biden swore to lead. He even rolled out a plan for fighting the coronavirus, vowing to expand testing and production of personal protective equipment, rejoin the World Health Organization, reconstitute the White House pandemic task force, and institute a national mask mandate. The promise was clear: Biden would return the country to normalcy.
If that's what we're expecting, we're in for a world of disappointment. Yes, the greatest impediment to public health has been voted out of office. Yes, one of Biden's first acts as President-Elect was to announce a pandemic task force full of scientists and doctors. But normalcy's return is not imminent. Some 238,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19, ten million have fallen ill and the country is powering through one pandemic record after another. The simple controls that could once have stopped the outbreak are a fading dot in our rearview mirror, and Trump has organized an entire side of the political spectrum against anything that could curb the virus's spread, turning masks and social distancing into partisan shibboleths. Meanwhile, the economy is as fragile as ever. Given the time we lost in the first year of the pandemic, it might be too late for Biden — or anyone — to bring back normalcy, not now and not for years to come.
For one thing, Trump has 2 1/2 more months in office, which he can use to dismiss and minimize the epidemic. By the time he's gone, according to one projection, another 170,000 Americans could be dead of COVID. That would bring the total deaths to more than 400,000 in just one year, and that's if the current administration and state governments stay the course. But we know better than to expect stability from Trump. If he lashes out — making good on his threat to fire Fauci, say, or preventing Democratic governors from locking down their states — the count could be even higher. "This is not going to go away anytime soon," said Howard Koh, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "We're not going to get back any sense of normal until the end of 2021 or even into 2022."
Even with the best and most efficient transition team, it will still take time to fill key jobs, to re-form the White House pandemic task force and to create the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force that Biden touted in his campaign plan. It will take time to pass and implement the kind of economic-relief legislation Biden has promised, even if there are Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate. It will take time to double our testing capacity — another Biden promise — and to invoke the Defense Production Act to make PPE. It will take time to win over Republican governors and a Republican resistance on Capitol Hill emboldened by a surprisingly good election result. It will take time to deal with the inevitable legal challenges to a national mask mandate. "This is a large battleship," said Eric Toner of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Turning it "is not easy, and it won't happen quickly." Biden's key mandate will be to right that ship of state. But how do you steady a ship in which the outgoing captain has deliberately punched numerous holes?
Trump will leave behind a country deeply divided in how it perceives the coronavirus, one in which more than 71 million people voted for him despite his handling of the pandemic. "He's already baked that into the culture among his base, that this is all a hoax," said Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists. Polls show that American views of the pandemic are more politicized than those in any other industrialized country. Republicans remain far less likely than Democrats to see covid as a serious threat. They are far more likely to believe that it is safe to attend in-person religious services, despite what we know about the aerosolized spread of the virus in closed spaces, especially by singing. They're far likelier to see masks as an infringement on their freedom. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, 93% of counties where the coronavirus is currently raging voted for Trump. The same report found that 36% of Trump voters believed the pandemic as "over" or under control. This is clearly the result of damaging messages — including that the pandemic is an elaborate anti-Trump plot — that are actively reinforced in right-wing media, which, despite Trump's loss, isn't going anywhere. Studies by the Pew Research Center show that, over the past six years, conservative viewers have locked themselves in an increasingly airtight informational bubble, in which Fox News plays the dominant role. Republican viewers increasingly trust Fox, and almost only Fox, even as other studies show that this trust is quite literally killing them.
Trump is not going quietly into the night. George W. Bush ceded the bully pulpit after the election in 2008, allowing President-elect Barack Obama to begin setting policy on the financial crisis well before Inauguration Day. Trump, on the other hand, is refusing to accept election results, and his appointees are deliberately hampering the transition process. The president is already toying with a 2024 run for the White House before he has even left it, and reports suggest that Trump intends to keep holding rallies, which have been shown to be superspreader events. Even if he doesn't, he is sure to be a constant presence in the right-wing media and on Twitter, trying his hardest to lead a Republican resistance to the new Democratic administration and undermining its pandemic strategy. He may continue to cheer his aggressively maskless supporters, even though some epidemiologists have estimated that such pronouncements have cost as many as 12,000 lives.
It's not just conservative Americans Biden has to win over. Trump's politicization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as his empty promises to rush a vaccine out before Election Day, have undermined many Americans' trust in the safety and efficacy of a vaccine. In a September poll, only 51% of Americans said they would maybe or definitely get a coronavirus vaccine if one were available at that time. Nearly half of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Americans said they would probably not get the vaccine. Rebuilding trust in the process and the regulatory bodies that oversee vaccine development and production will take time. And this will push back the moment when America can finally reach herd immunity — and return to normal. "You can have a 100% effective vaccine, but if only half of people take it, it's only 50% effective," said Feigl-Ding. (It's unclear if people will put more trust in the newly-announced Pfizer vaccine, which was developed outside the outgoing administration's Operation: Warp Speed.)
Still, that doesn't mean that all hope of getting this pandemic under control is lost. "It's getting late, but it's never too late," said Toner. "We don't need all people to wear masks and avoid crowded indoor places; we just need most people. We can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
The United States is a country rich in money and expertise. A well-developed field called risk communication has largely figured out how to wage campaigns to change public opinion in the interests of public health. The CDC has this playbook. It just needs the political directive to get it off the shelf and start implementing it — consistently, without being subject to political pressure or outright sabotage from the Oval Office.
The point is not endless pessimism. Biden can help return the country to normalcy, but it won't happen overnight, and it certainly won't happen until well after his inauguration. A realistic assessment of the situation and the challenges the new administration is likely to face demands one thing above all else: patience. When I asked Koh, who was assistant secretary of health during the passage and rollout of Obamacare, if he's optimistic about Biden's chances to quickly turn things he around, he paused. "I'm not optimistic," he finally said. "But I'm hopeful."
Julia Ioffe wrote this piece for The Washington Post.
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