Ending a Global Pandemic Should Not Rely on “Individual Responsibility”

After a year and a half, the ravages of the pandemic show no signs of slowing down. The Omicron variant is spreading rapidly around the globe and is now the dominant version of Covid in the U.S., accounting for an estimated 73 percent of new cases. The U.S. is now averaging over 213,751 new Covid cases per day, which is equal to 85 percent of the number of cases during the peak when the highest daily average was reported on January 7, 2021.

While it is still unclear if Omicron causes more severe symptoms than other strains of Covid, it’s clear based on the variant’s high transmissibility1 that the sheer number of infections puts the most vulnerable members of the population at serious risk of illness. In just six weeks there has been a 39 percent increase in Covid-related hospitalizations all over the country, likely from the spreading of both the Delta and Omicron variants.

After all this time, the complete lack of a public health-based approach to this pandemic is criminal. The Biden administration has instead chosen to lay all responsibility on the individual decision to vaccinate or not, implicitly blaming the unvaccinated for the ongoing ills resulting from the pandemic. After facing heavy criticism for his administration’s incompetent management of the Omicron surge, Biden recently addressed the status of the pandemic, doubling down hard on this narrative. He said, “If you’re vaccinated, you’ve done the right thing, celebrate holidays as you’ve planned them.”

In the same address, Biden pledged to distribute 500 million free Covid rapid tests. While this may seem like a huge number, 500 million tests will only last about a month, and such a limited supply of rapid tests will also miss many positive cases, which often require more than one test per individual to detect. Following exposure to Covid, a person may initially test negative but then test positive after the virus has had time to replicate and achieve a detectable viral load. Biden’s pledge, with no promise of an ongoing supply of tests, is laughably and criminally inadequate. The tests will not be available for at least a few weeks, far too late to deal with the Omicron surge. When they do become available, it will not be all at once but in batches, leaving the vast majority of people needing a rapid Covid test without one.

During his candidacy, Biden was relentlessly critical of Trump for the lack of available testing, but since taking office, he has focused almost exclusively on a “vaccination only” strategy. Abbott, a Covid test manufacturer, even destroyed millions of tests due to decreased demand in August 2021, when the administration could have been preparing for the entirely predictable holiday surge and the increase in testing demands. This reveals how the incentives of a capitalist health system are fundamentally at odds with the goals of public health and the production of lifesaving technologies. What is” rational” from the standpoint of capital is a stupid and deadly mistake for public health.

Biden promised to open federal testing sites across the country, but provided no provisions for people to get paid time off, leaving workers to “figure it out” at the mercy of their employers. As Bree Newsome Bass pointed out, taking time off from work to wait in long lines for testing is often not an option for the poor and working class. Even when people can obtain tests, the delay in the delivery of PCR results, partially a result of a dearth in lab facilities, makes interpreting and acting on test results more difficult.

Despite all of Biden’s talk about “plans” to fight the pandemic, the United States has yet to establish a coordinated system for tracing cases and isolating those who test positive. Again, this leaves it up to individuals to inform close contacts of positive test results and to isolate themselves to the best of their ability. Unsurprisingly, after years of gutting public health systems in an endless effort to “cut costs,” the CDC does not even have the epidemiological infrastructure to track outbreaks accurately. As a result, the American government is relying on data from other countries to do this.

With its vaccine hoarding and exploitative “back to work” attitude, the United States government is only interested in ending the pandemic as long as it can also profit from it. The current administration has disingenuously placed the entire blame for the current state of the pandemic squarely on the unvaccinated. This narrative was crystalized in the recent callous statement from the White House Covid Response Team, which preemptively blamed the unvaccinated for “a winter of severe illness and death,” and for overcrowding and overwhelming hospitals.

But in the absence of other public health measures, “vaccination only” has proven not to be the magic cure that the Biden administration insists it is.

In New York City, for example, higher vaccination rates relative to the rest of the country have not stopped Omicron from spreading like wildfire among both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Vaccines represent just one piece of a Swiss-cheese model of prevention during the pandemic; focusing exclusively on vaccines without mass expansion in measures such as testing, tracing, and isolation (TETRIS measures), and without making workplaces, schools, and other public spaces safer, will not help bring an end to the pandemic. Relying on vaccines alone was always a poor strategy, and in the face of Omicron, it stands no chance at all.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris claimed that no one could have predicted the spread of the Omicron variant. An interesting claim, given that just a few months ago, experts presented the Biden administration with a plan to deal with this very situation. In October, Covid testing experts met with the Biden administration to recommend ramping up production of rapid Covid tests and making them readily available to the public, to prevent a surge during the holidays. The ill-fated proposal, “Testing Surge to Prevent Holiday COVID Surge”, was promptly rejected by the Biden administration, which said they did not have the capacity to produce tests at that scale. The administration decided instead to focus only on vaccination. They later announced a ridiculous plan in which insurance companies would reimburse privately insured patients who would buy a two-pack of rapid tests for up to $35, once again leaving people on their own to squabble with insurance companies known to do everything in their power to reject claims and not pay for healthcare.

The “individual responsibility” narrative of vax, mask, shut up, and work is beneficial for the ruling class as it exploits our labor and our deaths for profit. In addition to vaccination, there are other safety measures that could reduce risk of infection in a pandemic, such as providing people with housing, workers’ democratic organization of their own schedules and working conditions, and paying workers to stay home if exposed. The ruling class, however, would never allow any of these options because they would cut into their profit margin.

As people have died during the pandemic, BioNtech and Moderna shares have increased to the tune of billions of dollars. CEOs continue to make million dollar salaries while workers are underpaid and left working in precarious situations. These exploitative conditions have forced many workers (including those in health care, retail, and hospitality) to leave their jobs or quit their fields altogether.

Earlier in the pandemic, many health insurance companies had waived Covid-19 treatment-related costs for patients, but with the vaccine rollouts, the companies have ended the practice. The waivers should never have been eliminated, and the federal government should cover all costs of Covid-related hospitalizations indefinitely. These changes could leave patients — not only those who are unvaccinated, but those hospitalized with breakthrough infections, as well as children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine — with hospital bills totalling thousands of dollars. Bending to supply and demand, the CDC just shortened the recommended Covid isolation period from 10 days to five days in order to get people back to work faster. The function of the CDC is to analyze risk to determine public health recommendations. In doing so, however, it balances what costs are acceptable — both human and economic — and for what gains. As such CDC has historically been malleable to the demands of capitalism.

In a system that truly prioritized preventing people from getting sick and treating illness, all workers would be adequately paid, given access to safe working conditions, and have ample time to rest and recuperate. In such a system, people would have free healthcare instead of avoiding care or having to file for bankruptcy when they get sick. The ruling class is clearly more interested in keeping the wheels of the capitalist system turning — at the expense of the health of the workers and patients — rather than ending the pandemic. To the ruling class, the pandemic is a commodity to be monetized, just like everything else.

Discussions around the nature of the fragmented, profit-driven medical-industrial complex in the U.S. have largely been silenced in the halls of power. One would think that maybe, just maybe, the destabilization caused by a global pandemic might prompt a discussion of the way a healthcare infrastructure that was built to prioritize monetary value over human lives at every level helped to create and exacerbate this pandemic, and continues to fail to address its results. But from street uprisings around the killing of Black people by police to conversations around health care system changes, the Biden administration has been able to take enormous political energy and funnel it into centrist electoral demands under the guise of being more “pragmatic.”

And should this be a surprise? Of course not; the Democratic Party has always served as the graveyard of social movements, defusing progressive popular mobilizations whenever possible. On the healthcare front, Biden rejected calls to bring the U.S. in line with other nations and move toward a single payer healthcare system. Today, if Biden wanted to, he could take unilateral steps towards releasing Moderna’s vaccine formulation to the WHO, but Biden’s appeal has always come from his representation as a pole of stability and safety for a vaguely defined “everybody,” when in fact, he governs in the interests of the ruling class just as reliably as Trump did.

The narrative of individual responsibility takes pressure off of the government to organize necessary collective action, and therefore leaves people isolated, often at the whims of their employers. A byproduct of constantly hammering “individual responsibility” into our heads is that people learn that they cannot rely on government institutions and health systems to look out for them. Disappointed and alienated by the for-profit healthcare system, some people find comfort in conspiracy theories and flock into the arms of charlatans selling snake oil.

The anti-vaccination crowd is indeed an easy target for both parties of capital. The Republicans have convinced them that they are more “free” by resisting vaccinations. Meanwhile, the Democrats continue to scapegoat and blame them for the current state of the pandemic. Rather than trying to convince those workers who are anti-vaccine while allowing them to work in a way that does not put others at risk, the ruling class strategy has been to use vaccine mandates instead of, rather than in addition to, these other methods of controlling the virus and increasing vaccination rates.

The ruling class wants to direct public rage away from their exploitation and convince the working class and oppressed people to blame each other, creating a “war” of the vaccinated against the unvaccinated. They need to do this to avoid exposing how the ruling class has kept the machinery of extraction and accumulation going during the pandemic at the cost of public health. They are trying to hide a healthcare system whose primary objective is to serve as a means of capital accumulation, extracting profit from people’s bodies as they become damaged by the capitalist system, not to maintain individual or public wellbeing. It would be extremely dangerous to the ruling class if the workers realized that these systems are responsible for creating and exacerbating the pandemic.

Ending a global pandemic is not an “individual issue.” Yes, people should get vaccinated. Yes, they should wear masks. And yes, Covid-19 vaccines should be available to everyone in the world who can be safely vaccinated, but vaccines alone are nowhere near enough. People should take all possible individual measures, but the ability to do so must also be readily available to them. If we want people to trust vaccinations, we need a free healthcare system that clearly prioritizes people’s health. It’s fantastically dissonant to so vehemently tell people to take personal actions to protect themselves when it is clear that societal structures do not prioritize their health. Becoming sick from Covid just adds to the many other threats to one’s existence such as lack of housing, lack of food, and bankruptcy. So it’s no surprise that shaming people for not “doing their part” under these circumstances engenders resentment and tends to backfire.

We need basic public health measures such as housing, food, debt cancellation, paid medical leave, and free medical masks, testing, and treatment. We need a society that values public wellbeing over private profit. We need to destroy the economic system that must continually find areas of capital expansion, destroying the planet we live on and putting us at risk for future pandemics. Bourgeois politicians and governments beholden to capital will deliver none of these needs.