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No, Fauci, a Pandemic Can’t End in One Country Only. You Taught Me That.

Borders are fictional. One country can’t transition out of a pandemic while others remain mired in it.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee about the response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on November 4, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

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I always believed that when it ended, or came as close to “ending” as science and petulant politics could manage, there would be a shared moment of great rejoicing joined in somber reflection of all that had been lost.

There would have to be one, yeah? After almost a thousand days of COVID, a thousand days of choking death and stifled fear, of refrigerator trucks stuffed with bodies and nurses wearing garbage bags to save their own lives, even the folly of “leaders” and the vandalism of followers has not smothered our need to embrace an ending to this thing, a place where we who are still here can say, “Here we are.”

Instead, wedged between Russia cutting off Poland and Bulgaria’s gas supply and Elon Musk’s new toy, was the announcement: The United States is finally “out of the full-blown explosive pandemic phase” that has led to nearly 1 million deaths from COVID-19 over more than two grinding years. So spoke Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, on Wednesday. “We’re really in a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity.’”

Not long after, CNN carried President Biden’s eulogy for Secretary of State Madeline Albright. His tone was somber, the assembled dressed in black. Each wore a matching black face mask because the vice president, Kamala Harris, along with a slew of other administration officials, contracted COVID after the Gridiron Dinner.

There is talk the president will miss the White House Correspondents’ Dinner because of this. The last president to skip the Correspondents’ Dinner was Donald Trump, who dodged the night because he hates being made fun of. Funny, that: Had Trump skipped the dinner in 2011, when President Obama turned him inside out like a Rottweiler with a rag doll over Trump’s “birther” obsession, we might not even be here.

One more quick bit of trivia: Who was the last White House chief medical adviser to back out of the Correspondents’ Dinner? Answer: Anthony Fauci, who bailed out of the event on Tuesday night before telling everyone we’re entering a “controlled phase” the following morning.

During that Wednesday morning interview, Fauci was at pains to clarify his assessment. “The world is still in a pandemic,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. Don’t anybody get any misinterpretation of that. We are still experiencing a pandemic.”

A few minutes later, Fauci said, “Right now we’re at a low enough level that I believe that we’re transitioning into endemicity.… We’re not in the full-blown explosive pandemic phase. That does not mean that the pandemic is over. A pandemic means widespread infection throughout the world.… In our country we’re transitioning into more of a controlled endemicity.”

Anthony Fauci has been a target of a vicious right-wing hate campaign ever since Trump made the plague a political thing and then murderously botched the task of addressing it. Fauci’s rare missteps have been magnified and often distorted, and there’s even an outlandishly, dangerously bizarre theory out there arguing Fauci himself caused the COVID-19 pandemic in the first place. Some guy in a basement come up with that? Actually, Tucker Carlson, prime time Fox News host, came up with one version last summer. There are others.

I have always been in the Fauci corner, in science’s corner, vaxxed and boosted as soon as I became eligible. From the day this began, I put my faith in science to find a way through this, as science has done so many times before, and that faith has thus far been rewarded. Science has done the best it can, which is pretty damned good, under almost incomprehensible conditions.

There is, to me, an air of Archibald Cox around Fauci. Both were exactly what was needed in the moment, they served with honor, and with the exception of the furious few, they were trusted by millions.

I still trust Anthony Fauci, but I’ll never listen to him the same way again after today. I can’t abide what he said, and I remain astonished he said it. We are no longer in a full-blown pandemic, though it is still a pandemic around the world? His last two lines — “A pandemic means widespread infection throughout the world.… In our country we’re transitioning into more of a controlled endemicity” — leave me in despair.

If anyone should ask exactly why this country flew apart at the seams when the first round of COVID came snarling through, you can chalk it up, at least in part, to the grumpy, grabby, sullen, surly sort of “exceptional” American individualism much of the nation and a fair portion of its politics appear to have embraced. For every region or city where safety and community held tight, there were three where even wearing Band-Aid-level technology like a mask was hedging heresy.

Fauci, in his remarks, held the United States separate from the rest of the world. For a man of science who has seen all of this through, such fragmenting is both perilous and appalling. What makes COVID so dangerous now are the variants and subvariants. All of them have come from somewhere else, on the far side of those fictions we call borders.

The longer we fail to grasp this elemental fact, the longer this pandemic will drag out, happy pronouncements to the contrary.

If there is a hint of COVID remaining on the last outcropping of Tierra del Fuego, that is our problem, too. It will try to get here, it is very good at that, because that is its nature. It hasn’t changed once since this all began. It got meaner by degrees, but the mission statement didn’t so much as twitch. We, on the other hand, did everything we could to welcome it, short of basting ourselves in the oven like a Thanksgiving turkey.

“A dramatic drop in testing for Covid-19,” reports the Guardian, “has left the world blind to the virus’s continuing rampage and its potentially dangerous mutations, the head of the World Health Organization has warned. ‘As many countries reduce testing, WHO is receiving less and less information about transmission and sequencing,’ he said. ‘This makes us increasingly blind to patterns of transmission and evolution. When it comes to a deadly virus, ignorance is not bliss.’”

This isn’t over, because this is about the world and our place in it. There is still a pandemic raging in that world. Anthony Fauci told me so.

When the river hits flood level and it’s all hands to the banks, there is no declaration of victory if the waters slightly recede. You take a breather, get some rest and then get back to packing the sandbags. Why? The last rise came, and the next one will come, because the rain has not stopped.

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