Last week more than 50 of the crème-de-la-crème of American politics and journalism—almost all Democrats—made the personal lifestyle decision to get Covid-19 at the Gridiron Dinner, where a brass band kicked off the festivities, “some of the comic skits featured actors dressed as the coronavirus, like large, green bouncing balls with red frills,” and, as tradition would have it, guests joined hands for the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” to conclude the evening.
Our pundit class, from Leana Wen to David Leonhardt, have told us that since we’re all vaccinated we have nothing to worry about, so all that was asked of attendees was to provide proof of immunization. In D.C. now, they are all vaxxed-and-done and, gosh-darn-it, they mean it. No pre-event testing, no special attention to ventilation in the ballroom, no thought of spacing out attendees rather than have them sit at long, narrow tables for hours. Because everything is optional now, everything is up to individuals. Here is Leana Wen saying the quiet part out loud in The Washington Post: “I also think it’s acceptable if event organizers choose not to exercise precautions, and instead put the onus on individuals to decide the acceptable risk for their own medical situation.” Normal means never having to say you’re sorry. Even if your guests get Covid-19 , they’ll always have Paxlovid, prescribed for them by the White House physician or concierge internists in the district. As David Leonhardt reminds us, masks and other protections are only for the recently infected, progressive Covid dead-enders, residents of nursing homes, and people with cancer.
What makes the Gridiron Dinner deplorable is that no one really gave a damn about doing the bare minimum such as the mitigation efforts I just described—and then made it almost certain that the setting would be most hospitable to the virus. Inviting a brass band and singing a New Year’s Eve anthem? In April, indoors? Might as well have gotten out a garden mister and sprayed the room with SARS-CoV-2. Right now, as we read in The New York Times, “there are no reports of any symptoms more serious than a sore throat or mild fever”—which is indeed a blessing—but knocking out a cabinet secretary for two weeks or, God forbid, sending them to the hospital was a risk everyone seemed willing to take. And remember, more than a few of the folks at the shindig were in their 70s and 80s, and no one seems to have thought twice about them either, including my old friend Tony Fauci, who is 81 and was in attendance.
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There is a decadence to the Democratic embrace of rugged American individualism, where we owe each other nothing, that’s almost, well, Republican in spirit. Personal risk. Personal choices. Personal responsibility. Paul Ryan—remember him?—would be proud. The Gridiron Dinner was just American Covid-19 policy personified: no precautions beyond vaccination and Paxlovid for the unfortunate few who catch SARS-CoV-2.
Except that this is policy for the privileged, who are boosted (probably twice by now—and, full admission, I am doubly boosted myself) and know just whom to call to ensure they get the best medical care should they get sick. But, as Harvard emergency physician Jeremy Faust just wrote, this notion that we can calculate our own personal risk is a chimera: “Nobody has a good handle on what their individual risks truly are. How could they?… the math is remarkably complicated. We can’t expect people, even experts, to do this on the daily. That makes the ‘leave it all up to individuals’ approach pretty unworkable at the moment.”
Furthermore, as Aparna Nair, a historian of public health, told Ed Yong at The Atlantic last year, “Framing one’s health as a matter of personal choice ‘is fundamentally against the very notion of public health.’” This isn’t just a theoretical concern. Right now, the anemic Covid-19 funding bill in Congress has no money for the Health Resources and Services Administration’s program for Covid-19 testing and treatment for the uninsured. Until the Biden Administration extended the national Covid-19 public health emergency yesterday, millions were at risk of being kicked off the Medicaid rolls on April 15; now they have a reprieve for 90 days. Moreover, only 30 percent of Americans are boosted, meaning they lack critical protection against current Covid-19 variants, and many areas of the country are still far behind in getting people even the first series of shots. Meanwhile states are closing public testing and vaccination sites.
I am not even sure anyone is trying anymore in the heady reaches of the Biden administration. Scott Kominers, a professor at Harvard Business School, last week excoriated the new Covid.gov website—meant to provide links to all anyone might need to find testing and treatment, but which he described as a labyrinthine boondoggle, full of dead-ends and false leads. Of course if you have the right connections, you will never go to a site like this, because you will have everything delivered to you on a silver platter with just a text.
Covid lingers too, among the potentially millions with long Covid, among the hundreds of thousands of orphan children, millions more grieving their dead. What happens to them, now? If it’s just about what you and I do in our private lives, do any of those people really matter?
Republicans and Democrats alike, we are essentially leaning into public health apartheid in America now—creating two tiers, one for the privileged and those with resources, and another for everyone else. It’s brutal, but is being normalized by our elected officials and their appointees, and by pundits like Wen and Leonhardt, who frankly see more to gain from telling people what they want to hear rather than what the nation as a whole needs: to keep our eyes on the prize, keep key programs in place, do better on everything from vaccination and boosters to providing masks and tests, to improving ventilation in public and private buildings. And that’s without even considering programs to mitigate the social and economic toll of the pandemic.
Yes, the political headwinds are strong, but if you pretend the pandemic is over, you’ll soon be begging for the bare minimum—which is exactly the position the White House now finds itself in, even as it acknowledges that we will need far more resources for this fight now and for the foreseeable future.
Instead, we are heading into this spring and summer less prepared than we were a year ago. Everyone seems to be betting against the virus, literally betting our lives the worst is behind us, that we won’t see anything like the carnage of the past winter—when nearly 200,000 Americans died of a variant David Leonhardt again and again told us was mild, of little concern to most people. Jacob Bacharach wrote about Leonhardt’s relentless positive spin on the pandemic in The New Republic: “I cannot for the life of me decide if he is Dr. Pangloss or if he is Candide—the relentless crackpot optimist or the disappointed student who finally throws up his hands and concludes that we must, each of us, tend our gardens alone.”
Or perhaps—as I speculated back in October—Leonhardt, Wen, and the celebrants at the Gridiron Dinner are more like the courtiers in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” who think their power and privilege can insulate them from the plague. After all, privilege and power worked for years to keep them safe and happy before 2020—and they cannot wait to get back to that happy state of affairs. We can hear their laughs—at the Gridiron Dinner, or with Leonhardt chuckling as he and Bill Maher joked, in front of millions last week, about the MAGA vaccine hold-outs and the progressives clinging to their masks. Except what is happening now is not funny, not funny at all for so many Americans.
Sarah Wildman, whose daughter received a liver transplant as part of her cancer treatment in March 2020, wrote a piece for Times last Saturday about how we’ve treated the vulnerable during this pandemic:
I keep thinking of failures—of education, of empathy, of imagination. It is a time, Alice MacLachlan, a professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto, wrote to me, when we might also notice the carelessness, fear and arrogance that accompany our relationship to wellness and illness. Carelessness about how our choices affect others. Fear we might ourselves become unwell. Arrogance in our surety that we will never fall on that side of the ledger.
Carelessness, fear, and arrogance are the reigning spirits of the age. Carelessness—indeed, recklessness as policy—when community spread of the virus has been downgraded by the CDC as an indicator of trouble, suggesting that getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t matter. By creating maps that show a sea of reassuring green (for low hospitalizations and deaths) from coast to coast, even though virus transmission is still high in many communities, you’re going to confuse people at best, or mislead them deliberately. And arrogance, thinking you’ll always be fine while making decisions that heighten the risk for so many, knowing that the people who matter will never criticize you, will, in fact, amplify your nonsense and punch down on anyone who disagrees.
But you’ve still got to wonder if all this is a bit of whistling past the graveyard. Might there be fear, too, among the D.C. machers—perhaps themselves immunocompromised or vulnerable in some other way, or who perhaps love someone who is? Or among those who fear that the Biden administration—with the full-throated support of so many other influential people—might just be setting us up like Humpty-Dumpty for a great fall if and when the virus roars back?
But never you mind! There are all tomorrow’s parties to consider. Like the White House Correspondents’ dinner next week! I heard they got Trevor Noah.