Since last winter, the Biden administration’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic—at its best never very inspiring—has continued giving up the ghost. Amid a record-breaking level of infections and deaths in the Omicron wave earlier this year, Americans saw the rollback of indoor masking mandates in many states—soon followed by the repeal of the federal mask mandate on public transportation. In February, the CDC reshaped its own guidelines about local Covid risk in a way that will permit the public to be blindsided by surges; last week, its guidance was loosened even further. Currently, the United States faces the recent emergence of a highly transmissible new variant, the prospect of 100 million new infections this fall, and the alarming news that one in five people who test positive will experience symptoms of long Covid. National Covid fatalities remain at “a horrible plateau.”
Despite these ominous developments—not to mention the steady uptick in new cases of monkeypox nationwide—the Biden administration continues to invest a disproportionate share of its resources in managing impressions. As health equity expert Anne Sosin recently commented, US pandemic policy is being shaped by “acceptance of a high death toll rather than the aspiration to reduce it.” Communicating this essentially contradictory stance has required some finesse on the administration’s part—not least as leaders including Tony Fauci, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden himself have all been infected with Covid-19 over the past months.
Rather than make the case for renewed Covid protections, the Biden administration has normalized illness, avoided telegraphing a sense of urgency to the public, and stayed mostly silent about long Covid and Covid mortality. Repeating the catchphrase “We have the tools”—yet not working to make sure everyone has those tools—public health leaders have been resting on unearned laurels. While the president was ill and convalescing—and modeling the staying-busy, back-to-work ethos that the administration is pushing to all Americans—Covid response coordinator Ashish Jha commented, “We are now at a point, I believe, where we can prevent nearly every Covid death in America.” That’s a bizarre claim on its face, given that 3,135 COVID deaths were recorded in the US that very week.”
Over recent months, official efforts to steer messaging away from the pandemic and roll back Covid protections have been justified with claims that could seem like common sense: that the public is “tired” and “burned out” and experiencing “pandemic fatigue”; that we find Covid measures “burdensome.” Figures on both sides of the political spectrum have endorsed these assessments, including many Democratic leaders. Amid efforts to roll back pandemic protections, the Biden administration and its allies have leaned on the talking point that the public is “tired, worried, and frustrated”—in need of concessions, fewer rules, and being met “where they are.”
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In a sense, this might seem convincing. After all, if politics is “the art of the possible,” isn’t public health the art of the possible too? If people are tired, shouldn’t they be allowed to have a rest? Yet the idea of Covid fatigue or burnout deserves a closer look—not least because it has been used to accomplish so much ideological heavy lifting.
To begin, the data on public opinion and the pandemic suggest that levels of concern about the pandemic have not declined significantly. While it is true that some opinion polls have suggested high levels of public frustration regarding Covid, only a slightly larger fraction of respondents believe Americans should “learn to live with the pandemic” than believe we should “do more to vaccinate, wear masks, and test.” More recent polls suggest that 70 percent of Americans see the pandemic optimistically—as “a problem, but manageable”—potentially suggesting widespread support for preventive measures. A poll last week found that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats support vaccine and mask mandates in schools.
Yet even if it were true that the public—all of us, or the great majority—were indeed “tired” of preventing Covid-19, that fact might not speak for itself. A tired public is not an argument. In fact, pandemic fatigue is a reason to do more in public health policy—suppressing disease transmission as efficiently as possible to keep morale from fading. The tired-public hypothesis is also an excellent argument for implementing less-obtrusive interventions at the levels of policy and institutions, such as improving indoor ventilation and funding paid sick leave—yet somehow the administration and the CDC are reluctant to connect those dots.
More to the point, though, America’s leaders have long understood that popular opinion is far from fixed, and that public sentiment can be whipped up when necessary. Though many Americans opposed military intervention in Iraq in 2002, the Bush administration invested very significant public relations resources promoting the invasion and the long wars that followed. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president in 1933, one of the very worst years of the Great Depression, he stated—aspirationally, to be sure—“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In their efforts to shape public opinion, leaders often tell a story about the nation—a myth, in a sense, even if grounded in fact. In such stories, “the public” is also a mythological figure, in ways more rhetorical than it is real. Though Biden has often invoked the anti-heroic image of an exhausted populace, on other occasions—when he is speaking about the economy, for example—he describes the public as bursting with energy. In February, amid record-shattering rates of pandemic mortality, Biden insisted that Americans were taking “everything that Covid has to throw at us, and we’ve come back stronger.”
As such, the de-motivational message that “people are tired” simply seems to be an excuse for avoiding the hard work of politics—if not a kind of suggestion, like a hypnotist’s command. By telling the public that they are tired, the administration is lowering expectations, promising less, and excusing its own shortcomings—in keeping with a broader strategy to shift responsibility for pandemic outcomes onto individuals. But given that half-measures in public health will only prolong the pandemic, “people are tired” is also likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy; it will allow our predicament to grind on without meaningful relief. That’s why the message needs to change, reminding Americans that we are resilient, compassionate, and capable of sacrifice. Instead of rationales for resignation, we need to hear what Winston Churchill supposedly said when giving his own public the bad news: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”