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COVID fatigue and budget priorities

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This New Yorker article points out that currently the US federal government can’t even manage to authorize a sum equal to less than one three-hundredth of the overall budget to keep combating the COVID pandemic:

In 2020, when the virus arrived, the government’s response was halting and disorganized. With time, however, something like consistency emerged: Americans knew what was allowed and what wasn’t. We’re now reverting to the Wild West phase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has indicated that less than one per cent of the population currently needs to wear masks. Some states are shutting down their testing and vaccination sites. Earlier this year, the Biden Administration asked for thirty billion dollars in pandemic funding, but Congress agreed only to some fifteen billion, and has so far failed to authorize even that. As a result, the federal government has reduced shipments of monoclonal antibodies to states and delayed the purchase of more antiviral pills. It no longer has the funds to pay for tests or vaccines for uninsured Americans, or to secure booster shots for the fall. Politicians and policymakers hold powerful tools for curbing the virus; increasingly, they are declining to use them. They’re also stymied by the murkiness of our moment: the country contains within it such a diversity of immunity, vulnerability, and attitude that no policy prescription seems to fit.

This is a classic example of how pandemics end in the social rather than epidemiological sense when people cease to care about them enough to keep combating them in a serious way.

The current seven day moving average for COVID deaths in America is just under 600 per day, which is the same rate we were at exactly two years ago, when the entire nation was in a state of justifiable panic about this terrifying new disease.

Now obviously the situation today is radically different: if you’re vaccinated and boosted, you have little to worry about in regard to becoming seriously ill from COVID, although of course by the very nature of epidemiological phenomena, the true long term effects of the disease remain unclear.

But it should still shock us on some level that several hundred thousand Americans are going to die from COVID in 2022 — probably between 300,000 and 400,000, depending on the breaks, as Gen. Turgidson would say. Yet we can’t even get the political system to authorize spending .25% of the federal budget to continue combating the worst public health disaster in at least a century — indeed arguably the worst since the Civil War, given that by this point it’s likely that we’ve seen more excess deaths per capita from COVID than the US suffered during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-1919.

Speaking of which, there’s a massive error near the top of the New Yorker article:

One of the most prevalent false beliefs about the pandemic is that the government has exaggerated the number of deaths; in fact, the official count is an underestimate. Since the pandemic began, at least a hundred thousand more people have died in this country than would have during normal times. Many of these “excess deaths” are uncounted covid fatalities. Others are the result of missed care for conditions such as heart attacks and strokes. Drug overdoses have risen to record levels; skipped cancer screenings and childhood vaccinations will add to the virus’s collateral damage in the years to come. The truth is that America’s battle with covid-19 has been more damaging than we like to think. And it is still ongoing.

I hope this mistake isn’t seized on by the right wing scream machine in its most degenerate Carlson-Berenson manifestations (“You say there’s been a million COVID deaths but only one tenth as many excess deaths” etc.) In fact the CDC’s almost certainly too conservative estimate is that we’ve had 1.1 million excess deaths during the pandemic, not 100,000. I suspect what happened is that the author meant to write that we’ve had at least a hundred thousand more excess deaths than the total number of official COVID deaths, which are now just under one million.

After two years, everyone is tired of COVID, but COVID hasn’t tired of us yet. Negotiating that situation is going to be difficult in a political and social system as dysfunctional as contemporary America’s has become.

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