COVID Isn’t Over — the US Must Do More to Combat It Worldwide

I was asked to take my mask off for the first time yesterday. Well, that’s not quite accurate. Better to say I was invited to remove my mask when I popped into my local bodega (yes, we have bodegas in New Hampshire). The counterman was all smiles when he said it, maskless himself. The store was empty and I didn’t want to seem rude, so off it came… and it felt for all the world like I was standing there without pants.

I’ve been fully vaxxed for a while now, but I still wear a mask when I’m going to be around people. Part of it is habit at this point, part of it is an act of solidarity with those who have to wear them, and part of it is the fact that I haven’t had so much as a case of the sniffles since I started wearing one. Come winter and no matter the current COVID circumstances, a mask will continue to be part of my accessorizing for that reason alone, and I’ll bet you a buck I won’t be the only one. The tissue companies are going to take a hit.

God, the masks. Our symbol for the age. If I live another 50 years, I will still never escape a feeling of melancholic anger whenever I see one. Every one of them should have “It Did Not Have To Be This Way” stamped on the front. They represent death, injury, failure and fear to me, and one thing more: They are a reminder that a stunningly large portion of this country won’t do a damn thing to help anyone else if it involves being mildly inconvenienced, even if it makes the difference between life and death.

That’s the glass-half-empty-and-cracked perspective, which probably isn’t entirely fair. Millions and millions of people took mask-wearing to heart, to help themselves and their neighbors, and our stratospheric infection numbers have sharply declined. More than half the country over the age of 12 has gotten at least one shot, which is also serving to put a lid on new cases. Those cases are still emerging every day by the thousands, but the difference between now and last winter is both staggering and heartening.

After an unendurably protracted run of months stuffed to bursting with death and sorrow, we are finally heading in the right direction. The people, by and large, deserve credit for this, including the many who poured themselves into mutual aid efforts when the situation was most dire. The scientists who conjured these vaccines like magicians pulling a dove from a top hat deserve a parade, as do the medical professionals who turned themselves into hamburger fighting this virus.

President Biden also deserves a slice of the credit for this turnaround. The man may be about as inspirational as a bag of oyster crackers, and there have been stumbles regarding communication, but the change since January is nothing short of an astonishment. Given the sack of mayhem Biden was handed when he got the keys to the joint, his administration’s ability to pull us out of the tailspin we were in will stand as one of the more impressive acts of leadership we’ve seen around here in a long time.

That being rightly said, I still believe the drive to fully reopen — and to forget — is happening too soon. The green grass and warm springtime breezes can’t alter the fact that, while things are improving here, the COVID situation around the world is worse than ever. If something is not done about it expediently, we are likely to face… what? Would it be a fifth wave, or are we still riding the first one? In any event, it behooves us to remember that the murderous Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 did a good deal of its killing in a third wave that came in 1919. The rest of the world is sick as hell right now, and in this regard, borders are meaningless.

On Wednesday, a report emerged claiming that a vicious new virus variant had emerged in Vietnam. This one was actually a hybrid of the U.K. and India variants. I was an English Lit major, and the idea that two variants could meet up and make a super-variant had never crossed my screen. Yet another terrifying COVID fact none of us can un-know.

Fortunately, the World Health Organization announced today that the virus rampaging through Vietnam “does not meet the global health body’s definition of a new variant, though it is still very transmissible and dangerous,” according to The Washington Post. While this is welcome news, it is also a stark reminder that the longer COVID is allowed to burn, new and deadly variants will continue to appear, and one of them might figure out how to pick the lock on our precious vaccines.

Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, India, South America and now parts of Africa are setting the bar very high for the number of new infections per day, and their health care infrastructure is beginning to wobble badly. Malaysia is heading into a mass lockdown that will last two weeks, and Peru currently has the highest COVID mortality rate per capita in the world.

“In Africa, concerns are growing over the possible arrival of a new wave powered by a more transmissible variant of the virus, with the health systems in many countries at risk of being quickly subsumed by a surge of infections,” reports the Post. “A recent study found that the continent has the world’s highest death rate of patients critically ill with covid-19, thanks to limited intensive care facilities and reserves of vital medical supplies like oxygen.”

The Biden administration is moving to help these international hotspots, but there is concern these actions are not nearly enough. Over the next two weeks, the administration will announce its plans to distribute 80 million vaccine doses around the world. That sounds like a nice beefy number, until you remember the global number of infections to date is more than twice that amount, and two weeks is a damn long time when your house is on fire.

The president has also signaled that he is in favor of waiving international patent protections for the vaccines, so countries can manufacture the shots themselves. This proposal, naturally, is facing strong pushback from the pharmaceutical industry and its battalion of lobbyists. “The battle mirrors the one during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s,” reports NPR, “when drug companies warred with global health officials who sought to produce generic treatments. Drugmakers eventually retreated after former South African President Nelson Mandela accused the companies of using patents to profit from his country’s health crisis.”

In this window of time when we seem to have a handle on the pandemic here at home, nothing less than a massive, global Berlin Airlift-style rescue mission is warranted. If Biden dickers around the edges of this and COVID makes another run on our shores, all the goodwill the president has accumulated will fall to dust, and my guy at the bodega won’t be inviting me to remove my mask anymore.

It’s pretty nice out now, but as any Stark will tell you, winter is coming. It is time to stop talking about leadership. It is time to lead. The world needs our help, and we have the capacity to give it. Let’s roll.