After 3 years, is the COVID-19 pandemic over?

On Sept. 18, 2022, President Biden declared in an interview that “the pandemic is over.” He made this bold declaration even as hundreds of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 were occurring weekly (Harvard School of Public Health Op-Ed). Over a million have died from COVID-19, and more are dying every day. Cases continue to rack the United States, following a winter surge of the deadly virus (CDC)

January 2023 marks three years since COVID-19 was first isolated and identified. And despite the Biden administration’s insistence, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Across two administrations, the response of the United States has been nothing short of disastrous. To understand why, and why the ruling class seeks to downplay the virus, we must examine the past three years more closely.

The past three years

On January 7, 2020, Chinese scientists isolated and identified a novel coronavirus with cases dating back to December 2019 or even earlier. The first case in the United States was confirmed in Washington state on January 21, 2020, and the first COVID-19 deaths in the United States were confirmed in Santa Clara County, California, in early February 2020. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization issued a global health emergency. Despite these many early and repeated warning signs, it would not be until March 13, 2020, that the Trump administration would declare a national emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic, unlocking the funds and resources to actually respond to the crisis. 

As early as February 7, 2020, former President Trump was comparing COVID-19 to the flu and spreading dangerous misinformation about the virus’s properties (Forbes). When a CDC spokesperson said on February 26, 2020, that “disruption to everyday life may be severe,” the Trump administration was quick to sideline the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and seize control of the narrative (Scientific American). The Trump administration’s narrative was one of constant downplaying the serious nature of the coronavirus, as well as misleading the people as to the threat it posed. According to Trump himself, he “wanted to always play it down” because he “[didn’t] want to create a panic.” 

There was panic anyway. Goods flew off store shelves, and hoarding and speculating on supplies ran rampant. Businesses shut down and people were thrown out of work without a clear plan. Racist fearmongering, fomented by Trump and the rightwing about the “Wuhan virus” being engineered in a Chinese lab got serious play in mainstream media. Despite being completely untrue, the resulting wave of sinophobic rhetoric spawned a spike in violence against Asian people across the country. 

When the people of the United States needed clear and accurate information to respond to the crisis, they instead were fed disinformation which heightened the state of panic. When they needed a plan of action, Trump instead downplayed the danger of the virus and deflected attention away from how important it was to implement health measures.

The CDC, the part of the U.S. Department of Health tasked with detecting and responding to new and emergent health threats, had a worldwide reputation for establishing criteria for fighting pandemics that many other countries followed. It can also issue legally binding orders.  

In the case of COVID-19, the pandemic research done by many CDC scientists and used elsewhere was not applied in the United States. This is because the director of the CDC is a political appointment answerable to the administration in office, the Trump administration in this case, which was reluctant to take health measures that cut into corporate profits. This left public health policy completely subject to ruling class whims. Thus, the CDC did not follow the best practice protocols its own scientists helped establish because Washington did not have the political will to follow them. Binding orders were never issued by the CDC, and guidelines were slow in coming, often weak and sometimes contradictory. The CDC has acted as more of a vehicle for upholding the economic and political interests of the ruling class than for providing real health outcomes. 

The Global Health Security Index took none of this into account when considering the reality of a pandemic response and certifying the United States as the most prepared for a pandemic in November 2019. Nor would they have taken it into account that the GHSI is a project of the ruling class political elite aimed at boosting the image of capitalist states, especially the United States. That might have been true some years past, but the U.S. public health and medical infrastructure had more recently been dismantled as part of a drive to privatize and profit from health care. 

United States was not prepared

The fact is that in 2020 the U.S. health care system was not prepared for a pandemic. The just-in-time for-profit production system led to the liquidation of ventilator and PPE storage facilities in the United States because it was cheaper not to store them. This liquidation caused critical shortages at the height of the pandemic. Public health had been neglected and defunded because it was the least profitable area of health care. Hundreds of community hospitals had been closed in past decades as health care was privatized. This process of consolidation to increase profits continued even as people died from COVID. Hospitals administrations across the country cut their workforces during the pandemic in order to keep profits up. 

The United States has one of the highest per-capita mortality rates in the world from COVID, and the worst case-fatality rates of the developed world (John Hopkins). The death toll in the United States stands at nearly 1.1 million deaths from COVID-19 as of January 2023, and there have been over 101 million total cases recorded in the United States (CDC) with continued transmission resulting in more than 323,000 cases, and 3,900 deaths, each week (CDC). At the time of this writing, COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer (CDC). Hospitals and emergency rooms, already chronically overcrowded before the pandemic, are now at an all-time high level of overcrowding with several now-overlapping health crises (CNN).

Entering 2023, 81% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, only 69% have completed their primary series, and only 15% have an updated booster (CDC). The lack of comprehensive vaccination requirements, the politicization of pandemic health policy by the far right, and a poorly managed campaign of vaccine education and messaging have contributed to overall lower rates of vaccination, with the United States ranking 56th in total vaccinations (New York Times). 

Experts: Long COVID ‘greatest mass-disabling event in human history’

Beyond immediate hospitalizations and deaths, the longer-term effects of COVID-19 also have an enormous destabilizing effect on public health. According to the CDC, nearly one in five American adults who have had COVID-19 have developed Long COVID symptoms, totaling 1 in 13 adults or 7.5 % in the United States overall (CDC). This makes COVID one of the “greatest mass-disabling event[s] in human history” according to Long COVID experts and advocates. Because COVID-19 disproportionately impacts gender- and race-oppressed groups and those in poverty, the greatest threat of Long COVID is to those who are already precarious (CDC). 

As early as September 2021, Biden had declared that “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Yet deaths from breakthrough cases of COVID continue. With the serious risk of Long COVID, the ongoing trend of breakthrough cases leaves many vaccinated people exposed in ways other than just death. The data is also incomplete, as many states have stopped — or never started — collecting data on breakthrough cases. A recent study has shown that 40% to 44% of hospitalized breakthrough cases in the United States were immunocompromised patients (American Medical Association).

And vaccinated or not, the pandemic death toll is weighted heavily toward the elderly (CDC). This is in no small part due to policies early on of discharging COVID-positive patients back into nursing and care homes, spreading the disease (NPR). Taken together, the U.S. policy toward the elderly, immunocompromised, and medically vulnerable has been one of state abandonment. 

U.S. COVID policy shaped by capitalist interests

Despite these crises, to this day the U.S. government has failed to craft policy capable of responding to the pandemic. Between the Trump administration’s passing of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (known as the CARES Act) and the Biden administration’s own American Rescue Plan, the newly-created Pandemic Response Accountability Committee has been responsible for overseeing more than $5 trillion in pandemic-related relief programs. Of this relief program, only an estimated $653 billion has been deployed toward federal COVID-related unemployment insurance, and $931 billion toward direct economic stimulus checks. 

More than $1.7 trillion of the funding went to businesses, with $835 billion alone allocated to the Paycheck Protection Program (NYT). These business relief programs amounted to a giveaway to business owners, with the inspector general of the Small Business Administration declaring that the “magnitude of the fraud we are seeing [in the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans] is unheard of — unprecedented.” 

Beyond economic stimulus, public health policy was also highly atomized and incoherent. States were left to develop individualized programs for pandemic response, often informed by highly politicized right-wing rhetoric rather than sound public health policy. The federal government’s relinquishing of COVID-19 policy to states has resulted in an extreme variability in regulations with resulting differences in health outcomes (Commonwealth Fund). For instance, Florida Governor DeSantis banned mask mandates in schools in 2021, and is now pushing for a permanent ban on masks and vaccine mandates in the state (Reuters).

At the federal level, even the very ability of a central health authority to order and enforce public health policy has been called into question, with the CDC’s federal travel mask mandate being struck down in a Florida federal court in April 2022. The decision is undergoing the appeals process at the time of this writing. Housing and utility protections were similarly left to state and local governments to resolve, resulting in what has been called a “patchwork of moratoriums,” drawing sharp attention to housing insecurity nationally. 

‘Ending’ the pandemic is about protecting profits

It is against this backdrop of an ongoing health emergency and inadequate response that President Biden made his declaration that “the pandemic is over.” Earlier, in February of 2022, the CDC had updated masking guidance based on an individualized risk assessment. In doing so, they also altered how transmission and case data were presented, making it more difficult for individuals to accurately understand their risks. In October of 2022, the CDC also stopped daily COVID case reporting. These efforts and more are part of a coordinated effort by the administration to normalize COVID-19’s presence rather than treat it. 

“Ending” the pandemic has always been about getting workers back to their jobs to deliver corporate profits, and not actually about addressing the pandemic as a public health crisis. COVID responses are being ramped down, and coverage for publicly-funded vaccines and treatments are planned to be fully privatized in 2023. Both Pfizer and Moderna have signaled price ranges three to four times higher than the federal price for boosters. Rather than using the pandemic as a catalyst to reevaluate private health care, the ruling class has its eyes set on expanding privatization.

As we enter year four of COVID-19, it is likely these trends of worsening health crisis and health care privatization will continue. It is clear that a new system is needed — one which not only adequately responds to public health emergencies, but also actually pursues a more holistic approach to health for everyone. To do so will mean eliminating the U.S. for-profit capitalist health care system and putting control of society directly in the hands of the people. Only a socialist system can meaningfully guarantee the health and well-being of everyone.

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