Amid vaccine optimism, Biden’s tone of caution is not mirrored by the actions of a number of state governors, writes Larry Donnelly.
ONE OF THE obvious upshots of Joe Biden’s winning the 2020 election and being inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States in January is that he has assumed political ownership of the pandemic.
He spent a lot of time during the campaign criticising his predecessor’s inept response to coronavirus, which probably led to more Americans contracting and dying from it.
President Biden and his administration recognise that he is the man who a majority of Americans, a crucial bloc of elderly citizens in particular, invested in to solve the public health crisis and to lead the fight to vitiate the devastating economic and further consequences it has had.
The heat is on.
It is no surprise, then, that he announced this week that the US would have enough vaccines for all the country’s adults by the end of May, months earlier than had been expected, and that teachers would be prioritised to receive their jabs to ensure that all of the nation’s children can return to school as soon as possible.
In concert with that bullish messaging, however, President Biden urged caution and indicated that it could be “this time next year” before any sense of normality resumes.
The world’s top expert in the field, Dr Anthony Fauci, has argued strenuously against the relaxation of restrictions because of the new variants in the disease that have been discovered and asserts that 80% of the population must be vaccinated if so-called herd immunity is to be achieved.
Their admonitions didn’t stop several governors from moving to re-open their states’ economies.
Greg Abbott and Tate Reeves, the conservative Republican chief executives of Texas and Mississippi respectively, for instance, have eliminated the requirement that people wear face coverings and have authorised all businesses to operate at full capacity.
The president didn’t pull any punches and accused the two unabashed right-wingers of “Neanderthal thinking” when he was asked about the dramatic recalibration.
They were not alone, though.
The Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, has outlined a litany of easings set to take effect: restaurants can admit twice as many indoor diners; shops and businesses can have more customers on the premises; private gatherings may involve more people; and those in possession of a negative test result may visit their loved ones in nursing homes.
The liberal mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, has issued a similar order and proclaimed to his constituents that “you can enjoy your city, right here, right now.”
I have been monitoring the situation very closely in my home state of Massachusetts. Charlie Baker, the nominally Republican and hugely popular governor of one of the bluest spots on the map, removed capacity limits on eating and drinking establishments from 1 March.
Notably, things never came to a halt in my old stomping grounds, even as Massachusetts experienced a third wave following the Thanksgiving period.
To be frank, this has been the cause of undeniably selfish annoyance for me as I read the group texts among my old pals making plans to meet for pints and meals and to play golf (weather permitting).
‘Trust Americans, not insult them’
Notwithstanding the spikes in the rates of infection across the US after the holiday season – the average number of daily cases, hospitalisations and deaths was exceptionally high in early to mid January, just as here – Massachusetts kept most things going, with curtailments on the size of gatherings and on opening and closing times.
The approximate total of cases and deaths in Massachusetts (550,000 cases, 16,000 deaths) has significantly outpaced the figures in Ireland statistically speaking (220,000 cases, 4,500 deaths), despite the former’s having two million more residents.
Yet still, without resorting to full-scale lockdown, the amount of active cases (under 30,000), hospitalisations (fewer than 800) and of intensive care units being utilised (187) is now at its lowest point in my birthplace since early November.
I am heartened by that, and thankful that my 86-year-old father has had the vaccine in his nursing home.
While I can’t help but wonder whether some cases and deaths there could have been prevented if Massachusetts had been as forceful and unrelenting in its approach as the government here, my friends of all ideological stripes express bewilderment at the length and breadth of the present lockdown they have been hearing about from me, as well as from their cousins and other acquaintances in Ireland.
That most of us are compliant and accept that the government is pursuing the correct course of action in unprecedented circumstances is also shrugged at by many of the people I talk to.
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Governors Abbott and Reeves actually captured the divergence in the transatlantic mindsets in their comments this week. Reeves posited that “Mississippians don’t need handlers. As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts. I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them.”
Abbott protested that he was “clear in telling Texans that Covid hasn’t ended.”
Instead, his spokesperson said that “Texas now has the tools and knowledge to combat Covid while also allowing Texans and small businesses to make their own decisions.
“It is clear from the recoveries, the vaccinations, the reduced hospitalisations, and the safe practices that Texans are using, that state mandates are no longer needed. We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans.”
In the current context – and based on what Republican and, albeit to a lesser extent, Democratic politicians are saying and doing – two frequently repeated maxims from the US civic religion reverberate in my head: “give me liberty or give me death” and “government is best that governs least.”
The beliefs that the right of the individual to do as she pleases is sacrosanct and that the government should generally stay far out of the way are held deeply and shared widely.
At the same time, it is not overly cynical or glib to say that economic imperatives tacitly supersede societal needs when push comes to shove in the eyes of many.
Accordingly, my suspicion is that, barring dire happenings I would prefer not to imagine, there would be a large, vocal, ideologically difficult to label opposition to the imposition of an Irish-style lockdown.
And that’s why President Biden is swimming against the tide as he continues to discourage initiatives to undo Covid-19 necessitated constraints on the “freedom” so valued by Americans.
His pleas are falling on millions and millions of purposefully deaf ears.
Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.