In a Sunday night interview with CBS News host Scott Pelley, President Joe Biden declared the Covid-19 pandemic “over.” News media, fellow Democrats and even members of Biden’s own administration soon cried foul. But while the president’s assertion may irritate political media and even his own party, his observation has the inestimable virtue of being correct.
The first notes of disapproval over the president’s assessment of the pandemic’s trajectory followed within minutes of its broadcast. “Biden says 'the pandemic is over,’” Reuters reported Sunday night, “even as death toll, costs mount.” A follow-up analysis pointed out that Biden may not believe his own rhetoric since his administration is prepared to extend the public health emergency around Covid into next year.
Is the pandemic really over, ABC News asked. "The pandemic is emphatically not over," University of California, San Francisco professor Peter Chin-Hong answered, pointing to roughly 400 Covid-related deaths each day — 223,000 in this year alone. "That's several-fold higher than a typical flu season,” he added.
NPR clucked its tongue at the president’s assertion, despite the “thousands of cases being detected every day” and those that go unreported because of mild symptoms or at-home tests that official statistics do not capture.
“We’re in the middle of the greatest mass-disabling event in human history,” one advocate for so-called long Covid sufferers told Time magazine. He added that a return to normalcy was “a crime against humanity.”
It was, however, The Washington Post editorial board that identified the political (and, perhaps, legal) land mine onto which the president had stumbled. If Biden ends the public health emergency around Covid, the Post reasoned, “some 15 million will lose Medicaid coverage; the reason for a student loan repayment pause will end; the rationale for Trump-era border restrictions, still held in place by a court, will disappear.” Gutted, too, are the legal arguments for mask mandates on airlines, vaccination requirements on federal employees, and the transfer of millions in student loan debt from borrowers to taxpayers.
Biden’s casual observation, the editorial argued, was in fact reckless stewardship of his administration’s efforts to reform the American social compact — some of which progressives advocated long before the onset of this outbreak. A less committed observer could be forgiven for concluding that the social engineering inspired by the pandemic is too important to allow the pandemic itself to get in the way.
The president’s critics are right that Biden’s mouth and the administration he leads are operating at cross purposes. Justice Department attorney Charles Scarborough, who is tasked with justifying a vaccination mandate for federal workers, has conceded that the failure of Covid vaccines to prevent transmission of the disease has “somewhat eroded” the logic for mandates. This White House is so married to the pandemic that the president’s own subordinates feel compelled to clean up after him. “The president said, and he was very clear in his '60 Minutes' interview, that Covid remains a problem and we're fighting it,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Biden did indeed say that Covid remains “a problem,” but that’s not synonymous with Covid being a “pandemic.” When, then, does Covid become “endemic” rather than a pandemic? According to American Medical Association member Dr. Stephen Parodi, it’s when “the disease is still around but that it's at a level that is not causing significant disruption in our daily lives.” For most Americans, that day arrived long ago.
A KFF survey published in August found Americans rank Covid behind climate change, the budget deficit, abortion access, health care costs, gun violence and inflation on their list of priorities heading into the midterm election year. A New York Times poll published last month found that less than a third of respondents say they’re still “always” wearing a mask in public. Although this describes voters who identify as “very liberal” far more than it does anyone else, the share of “very liberal” voters who remain anxious about Covid is collapsing. Just 14% of respondents in a recent Morning Consult survey described Covid as a “severe” health risk.
As erstwhile Covid hawk Dr. Leana Wen conceded, if the public is shedding its apprehension, that’s a rational response to observable conditions. “Some researchers have argued that reported covid death counts are substantially overestimated,” she wrote. “An infectious-disease physician in Boston told NPR that 70 percent of reported covid hospitalizations in her hospital are due to patients testing incidentally for the coronavirus.” Wen contends that Biden can declare the pandemic over without risking pandemic-related mitigation measures. That’s debatable. What’s not debatable is Wen’s conclusion: “The societal end of the pandemic has already arrived.”
Contrary to the efforts to label Biden (of all people) as indifferent to the suffering endured by the hundreds of thousands of people who contract Covid, he is just more up to date on the data than his critics. Decades of political experience has led the president to conclude that Americans consider the pandemic over, and putting those dark days behind us may just benefit the party in power. That intuition is supported by recent polling, which found the public generally approves of Democrats’ approach to governance during the pandemic.
But for the president’s party to benefit from a retrospective on the pandemic, his administration must act like it’s over. Preserving it to prop up otherwise unjustified policies would reinforce in voters’ minds one thing they say they didn’t like about how Democrats governed in 2020 and 2021: their “overbearing” style.
A perpetual pandemic forecloses on the idea that Covid is an emergency. Emergencies end. If Biden wants to reap the political benefits that will accrue to the chief executive who presides over the pandemic’s end, he has to ignore the political news media, disregard the loudest Democratic activists and govern like a post-pandemic president. Good luck, Mr. President.