I don’t know what pandemic Biden is talking about, but it can’t be this one.
In the month since it appeared in the United States, the Omicron variant has caused a lot of damage. Over 1 million new cases were reported Monday alone and, according John Hopkins University, nearly 1 in 100 Americans have tested positive for coronavirus in the last week. So far, it looks like 2022 may not be all that different from the years before.
On Tuesday, President Biden delivered an update on Omicron in the U.S. As usual, Biden’s messaging placed the burden of solving the pandemic onto individual people, and in particular portrayed the crisis as solely due to unvaccinated people. That’s not me doing any selective interpretation, by the way: During his briefing, Biden outright said, “This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Regarding the severity of Omicron, Biden also stated, “If you’re vaccinated and boosted, you are highly protected. Be concerned about Omicron, but don’t be alarmed. But if you’re unvaccinated, you have some reason to be alarmed.” He did not specify further what the appropriate difference is between “concerned” and “alarmed.”
Now, don’t get it twisted: Urging people to get vaccinated isn’t bad.
But there’s a lot going on in Biden’s address. First, 72% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, so this can’t be a pandemic of the unvaccinated. Vaccinated people are getting and spreading the Omicron variant in particular. I personally am typing this from my couch, where I’ve been quarantining for the past four days because I, a vaccinated and boosted person, tested positive for the virus last week.
At many times, Biden talks about unvaccinated people — and their potential risk of severe illness or even death if they catch the coronavirus — as if they’re a disappointment and a burden. And it’s true that a lack of vaccine uptake has let the virus percolate and mutate into new and trickily different variants like Delta and Omicron. But it’s this sort of moralizing of vaccine status that has me nervous. There’s been a lot of talk about how Republicans have politicized the pandemic, but Democrats are doing the same, with equally abysmal results.
In many circles, unvaccinated people have been painted as ignorant and deserving of death. I understand the impulse — I’ve even done it myself. It’s easy to scoff at people who died from coronavirus after posting for months about how it’s all a government scam on Facebook. At the same time, however, I’ve reported on vaccine hesitancy in Black communities, which is oftentimes fueled by long histories of medical abuse by the government. I’ve also covered how language barriers made it difficult for non-English speakers to receive vaccines.
All this is to say: Unvaccinated people can’t be grouped into one box that we label “bad” and then discard. You don’t have to like unvaccinated people, or even pretend to understand and empathize with them. But you do have to acknowledge that as long as we villainize unvaccinated people, Biden will be able to further latch onto them as scapegoats.
And that’s the problem. You could see it during his Tuesday address, when Biden continued referring to “the unvaccinated,” as if they were a separate and lower class. But outside of getting more people to take the vaccines, it seems the Biden administration has no idea what to do about the pandemic. That’s a far bigger issue than individual people. While vaccines are a necessary part of stopping the pandemic, they aren’t the one and only solution. What about the stimulus check Biden once promised and never followed through on? What about ensuring people have enough sick time to get tested, wait for results, and won’t be intimidated into returning to work early? What about delaying school reopenings for the spring semester? What about those much-maligned free at-home coronavirus tests for every American who wants one?
While Biden focuses on unvaccinated people as the “problem,” he’s also talking about a pandemic that I’m not sure any of us are living. His insistence Tuesday that tests are easy to come by, for example, is out of touch with reality. Rapid tests are basically sold out everywhere, and even if you can find one, Biden’s administration hasn’t made any plans to ensure people can afford them. The closest they’ve come is mandating that insurers reimburse people for the tests they buy, but anyone who’s navigated the mess of the American health care system knows that’s hardly a victory.
I know we all wanted 2022 to be better. Listening to Biden’s address, though, it seems the United States is more than willing to just let coronavirus run its course, as long as the federal government can blame somebody other than itself.