The conversation on shutting down massive swaths of the economy and daily life, in order to corral the dual COVID-19 variant explosions of Delta and Omicron, has become brittle. President Biden has stated repeatedly that the U.S. is not “in the shutdown business,” a sentiment echoed by many of his political allies as well as members of the business community.
Their hesitancy, while not as scientifically responsible as it should be, definitely has its reasons. Along with causing significant financial losses, the upheaval among the parents of young children was extremely punishing when schools closed and a haphazard form of in-home learning was instituted. Moreover, amid the earlier shutdowns, an ongoing right-wing political movement united with anti-vaccine conspiracists and allies of former President Donald Trump, and now threatens the very fabric of democracy in this country. If Biden chooses to lock down parts of the country, those collective pressures could collide and erupt again in ways difficult to predict.
Yet to no small degree, the shutdown decisions are already making themselves, thanks to vast numbers of workers testing positive and needing to stay home, rendering many workplaces incapable of full operation. “The question for Mr. Biden and his team,” reports The New York Times, “is whether anything they are doing can help soothe the psyches of Americans as they brace for potentially more months of Zoom meetings, canceled sports games and masks.”
The average number of new COVID infections stood at 486,658 today, a seven-day increase of 239 percent. All this on the heels of the holiday season’s inevitable spike in infections, and with millions of children returning to school after winter break. It is a cocktail for calamity.
Hospitals across the country are being hit with a flood tide of new infections among the unvaccinated, as well as by breakthrough cases among those who have their shots. So far, it does seem as if Omicron packs less of a punch among those who become infected despite vaccination. For those who have refused vaccines in deference to a right-wing political rallying cry, the outlook is far more grim, and has led the national health care infrastructure to the brink of implosion. Nearly half the nation still hasn’t gotten the recommended three doses.
“US hospitals have been dealing with their own staffing setbacks as they faced a recent surge driven by the Delta variant,” reports CNN. “Now, with Omicron spreading rapidly, hospitals are further strained. ‘The hospital is full, the ICU is full, and of course at the same time we’ve lost 20, 25 percent of the overall staff in the hospital due to them getting sick and having to stay home and isolate,’ Dr. Anand Swaminathan, an emergency physician in New Jersey, said Sunday. Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency room physician and associate dean at the Brown School of Public Health, said it was difficult to describe the situation in her hospital’s emergency department, with doctors and nurses ‘at the end of their rope.’”
Indeed, we are all at the end of our rope, and it is vital to recognize that, along with the peril it represents. We’ve allowed capitalism to be in the driver’s seat of our response since this began, and all that has gotten us is a steady diet of one step forward, three steps back.
While we do not yet require a total lockdown of everything thanks to the vaccines and other improved treatments, this tentative approach to containment has failed and must be abandoned. Instead, we need bold and immediate action. This would include universally available free testing, including both rapid at-home tests and PCRs. It would include widely available and free gold-standard masks, mandated in indoor public places. It would involve remote work and closures where appropriate, according to scientific recommendations, and subsidizing pay for people who can’t go to work. Such action would also include shifting events, school and work outdoors in climates where that makes sense. Sensibly applied vaccine and testing mandates, particularly in relation to travel, could go a long way. And the latest and best available COVID treatments should be accessible at all hospitals. Moreover, steps must be taken to end vaccine apartheid and ensure global access to vaccination.
“From the beginning, there have been a number of scientifically sound tactics to thwart this damnable thing,” I wrote back in November. “They were ignored during the last year of Trump’s tenure, and remain well behind where they should be under Biden. Those tactics are right in front of us, here and now…. These measures must be accompanied by restrictions and/or lockdowns when they are needed, not when they are financially convenient for the powerful. Science needs to drive the bus this time — science, and a genuinely effective push to vaccinate the entire world, cost be damned — and let the engine of greed idle for a while.”
The president needs to get a handle on this at long last, and stop mollifying the capitalists with half-a-loaf exercises in futility. We are almost out of time. One more winter, I fear, and then the abyss.