Contrary to some lies we’ve heard in the last year, we didn’t suddenly stop talking about the coronavirus after Election Day. It hasn’t magically gone away. If anything, the situation has become far more dire than even the worst we’d imagined: More than 4,100 people died of Covid-19 in the U.S. on Inauguration Day, in what has become a steady pace of record-breaking days. President Joe Biden warned that we should expect deaths to climb to 500,000.
So you can see why it feels strange for me to say I’m ready to feel hopeful when thinking about Covid-19 again. Even stranger is that my hope springs from the new administration’s being willing to look the American people squarely in the eye and say, as Biden did Thursday: “Let me be very clear — things are going to continue to get worse before they get better.”
“We’re in a national emergency. It’s time we treated it like one,” Biden said before signing 10 executive orders addressing the Covid-19 response. They included orders to speed testing, get new rules about safety out to workplaces and use the Defense Production Act to increase the supplies needed for tests and vaccine distribution. He also promised that his administration “will always be honest and transparent with you about the good news and the bad. We will level with you when we make a mistake.”
That’s exactly what Biden promised standing on the Capitol steps during his inaugural address. When the last administration took its cues from the president, his dishonesty seeped into every corner of the federal response; Biden’s blunt confrontation with reality has an opposite effect. And the relief that is inspiring in me is almost overwhelming.
Take the vaccine rollout: Public health experts have convinced me that there should be more screaming about how amazingly effective the vaccines the U.S. has approved so far really are, which the Biden team hopes to correct. His administration wants to administer 100 million vaccination shots in 100 days, supercharging the Trump administration’s effort, which a source told CNN was basically nonexistent. “There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch,” the source said.
Biden’s new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, didn’t sugarcoat how far behind the line of scrimmage they’re starting from. She went on “TODAY” on Thursday and countered former Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s claim that vaccinations will be available for the masses in their local pharmacies next month.
Mandating that people traveling on trains and planes wear masks? Groundbreaking.
“We are going to, as part of our plan, put the vaccine in pharmacies. Will it be in every pharmacy in this country by that timeline? I don’t think so,” Walensky said. “I don’t think late February we’re going to have vaccine in every pharmacy in this country.”
White House chief of staff Ron Klain, promoting the Biden team’s national Covid-19 strategy, said on Twitter: “This isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t going to be fast — sadly many more losses ahead. But we’re going to have a plan and we’re going to take this on full bore.”
It’s not like the new national strategy is a work of staggering genius. Some of the stuff in there is so commonsensical that it hurts. Frequent briefings from experts on the latest in the pandemic? Novel. The federal government’s reimbursing states for the cost of emergency protective gear for schools? Amazing. Mandating that people traveling on trains and planes wear masks? Groundbreaking.
“That it is possible for Joe Biden and his team to release a plan this straightforward is the most damning indictment of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response imaginable,” The New York Times’ Ezra Klein wrote ahead of Biden’s inauguration.
In the few months that I’ve been writing this column, I haven’t been subtle about how bleak the Covid-19 situation is in this country. When the first vaccines were on the edge of approval, I warned against thinking we were home free. “We haven’t come to grips with any of what has happened to us so far in this forever year, meaning we can’t possibly be braced for what’s still to come,” I wrote as winter approached.
It wasn’t out of a need to be a pessimist or a hatred of the former president but because the truth of the calamity wasn’t being reflected in our government’s response. It was maddening and heartbreaking, and it left me feeling hollowed out. The climbing death toll was met with thoughts and prayers that faded into the ether while the virus remained firmly tethered to the Earth.
So why the change of heart? The short answer is that what the Biden administration has done in the last 48 hours is the equivalent of sitting down with a friend after a toxic breakup, one who readily confirmed, “Yes, you were gaslit. None of what you experienced was in your imagination. It’s real and scary, and I’m sorry.”
Yes, we’re still living through an ongoing disaster that hasn’t reached its apex. But the idea that the federal government is not only actually taking this pandemic seriously, it wants to help the millions of Americans suffering through it has forced a crack into the callous that had formed around any hope I still possess. We’ve got a long way to go still, clearly. There’s no guarantee of success, especially without cooperation from Congress. But at least now the path no longer stretches into infinity in the darkness — we can see the next steps. And right now, that’s what I need.