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Columnists

The COVID-19 Disaster

November 16, 2020

President-Elect Biden has made containing the COVID-19 pandemic the top priority of his administration. He is aware that during the past month, the American rates of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have soared to all-time highs with the coming winter making it highly probable they will go even higher. COVID-19 will have claimed a quarter million American lives by early December.

At the heart of the Biden program is that evidence-based science rather than wishful thinking provides the best guidelines for dealing with the pandemic. Any effective program also has to be national rather than a hodge-podge of fifty different, often conflicting state actions and interactions.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has already established statistical standards to determine what stage the pandemic has reached in each region. Some parts of every state already meet the standards set to reopen the economy at the old norms. A few hot spots need to endure temporary lockdowns of some kind. The majority of the nation is somewhere in between. National guidelines are the only rational way of dealing with these demographic diversities.

Biden’s program doesn’t have any ‘magic bullets.’ Masking, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding large indoor gatherings are essential. The President-Elect would make them mandatory at federal institutions and federally sponsored gatherings. He would use the considerable power of the presidency to pressure governors and mayors to accept federal standards.

Biden also plans for a National Pandemic Dashboard where citizens can see the daily health statistics in their zip code. He would do well to augment that education by having one of the epidemiologists in his task force give daily updates on the situation.  A weekly address by Biden himself on the status of the pandemic also would be

quite useful in building popular support for his program.

Contact tracing has been the common tactic in nations like South Korea that have contained the pandemic. Biden plans to double such tracing. This action also has the economic plus of providing 100,000 new jobs.

The new spike in cases has brought equipment shortages, even for front-line nurses and doctors. Biden intends to increase funding from the Defense Production Act to guarantee that surgical masks, gowns, ventilators, beds, and other resources will be available as needed.

Thinking forward, Biden will resurrect the agency in the CDC that plans for future epidemics. One of its duties is to monitor emerging epidemics when they are still minor and determine and warehouse the equipment that might be needed. The agency was initiated by the Obama administrators but terminated by Trump.

Biden is heartened by the announcement that a preventive vaccine may soon be available, but he is well aware that mass distribution of such a vaccine is extremely difficult and is not likely before next summer. To hold off on other preventative measures while waiting for that to happen is not a viable option.

Entwined with the physical life and death challenges of the pandemic is the economic turmoil it has generated and will continue to generate until it is contained. A second economic stimulus bill is essential to prevent the permanent closure of many small businesses. A stimulus bill also would be extremely helpful to tens of millions of Americans who are unemployed, under-employed, or living on fixed incomes. Biden has urged such legislation to be passed as soon as possible.

A major problem for getting immediate anti-pandemic action is that Biden will not assume office until January 20. Before then, confronting the epidemic is in the hands of President Trump, who has been in consistent denial about its scope and nature. Rather than directly dealing with the pandemic, he has concentrated on re-opening the economy as fast possible and waiting for a vaccine. The mounting death toll is being treated as unfortunate collateral damage.

Trump would do his ‘legacy’ a favor and serve the nation honorably by altering his COVID-19 policies. An ideal scenario would have him aiding Biden instead of making baseless noise about a ‘stolen election’.  His fellow Republicans also would do themselves and the nation a great service by forsaking partisan politics to assist Biden in combatting the pandemic. Don’t bet the farm on either happening.

Biden is preparing well, but he cannot activate his plans before his inauguration. Even then it will take many weeks to show results. This means that, for at least six months, tens of thousands of preventable deaths will continue and even more people will be burdened by the lingering effects on those who have survived the virus. The only consolation in this tragic but likely scenario is that Joe Biden has pledged, that once in office, he will be a truth-teller rather than a vacuous self-declared ‘cheerleader’. That constitutes a significant step away from our current suicidal pathway.

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