Last summer, HBO released a new documentary on the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. There is a startling scene in the film—a factual coda to the acclaimed mini-series—where a group of soldiers ready themselves to enter the reactor, six months after the disaster. They are equipped with makeshift protective equipment, which is described in this review in the center-right New York Post:
Dressed in what appears to be foul-weather gear, one of the young men cinches his gloves and tightens the drawstring of his hoodie to shield his cheeks. Another slips a .1-inch-thick piece of lead, thinner than the protective coverings provided for dental X-rays, over his back. Some insert the sheets inside their undershorts, creating what is cheekily referred to as an “egg basket,” to protect their private parts. “Radiation is nonsense!” one of the men crowed on camera as his buddies goofed around and put bunny ears behind each other.
The film details the great pains the leaders of the Soviet Union took to cover up the seriousness of the disaster, to their own citizens and to the world—and to these young men heading into danger—while ensuring that the nomenklatura were fully protected against its effects.
A flurry of reports came out last week from Davos, at the World Economic Forum, about the Covid protocols in place for that gathering of plutocrats and their enablers. High-quality ventilation had, of course, been installed, along with HEPA purifiers and far-ultraviolet-C lights to kill SARS-CoV-2. All attendees had to take a Covid test before coming to Davos, and then be tested again on-site before being granted access to the venues. Failure to do so, or a positive test, meant your badge was deactivated and you were locked out of the WEF. As the title of one article on the event put it: “Billionaires at Davos Don’t Think COVID Is a Cold.”
I am not suggesting that the United States is covering up the ongoing seriousness of the Covid pandemic, now entering year four. In fact, Ashish Jha, White House Covid response coordinator, was quite blunt last week in The Washington Post about the severity of what we will be facing—not just for months, but possibly for years—in this country:
I am worried that we are going to have, for years, our health system being pretty dysfunctional, not being able to take care of heart attack patients, not being able to take care of cancer patients, not being able to take care of the kid who’s got appendicitis because we’re going to be so overwhelmed with respiratory viruses for…three or four months a year…. I just think people have not appreciated the chronic cost, because we have seen this as an acute problem. We have no idea how hard this is going to make life for everybody, for long periods of time.
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But, purposefully or not, the White House has relied on a policy of destructive interference, in which messages like this from Jha, forthright (but strangely passive—as if he weren’t tasked with coordinating our nation’s response to all this) are matched with “don’t worry, be happy” ones, making it difficult to tell the signal from the noise. Meanwhile, the White House’s id—the pundit class—keeps providing cover fire, declaring the pandemic’s toll overstated, or, in the latest twist from the University of California–San Francisco’s Monica Gandhi, offering a “scientific” rationale for doing less (i.e., stop testing, stop masking) by using “endemic” as a talisman to justify throwing our hands up in the air.
As revealed at Davos, you simply have to pay attention to what the most powerful people in this country are actually doing to get a sense of what they really think. Under President Trump, sophisticated upgrades to the White House’s antiquated ventilation systems were put in place, including in-duct photohydroionization units in some settings. Over the past two years, these new HVAC upgrades have been ongoing at the presidential guest house (Blair House) and other residences nearby. Anyone who wants to get anywhere close to President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris or the inner circle has to to take a rapid test just before the event—as did those who worked or attended the indoor and outdoor festivities surrounding the Elton John concert at the White House in late September 2022.
Just this week, the House GOP boycotted a reception for new lawmakers at the White House because it required testing 24 hours in advance and proof of vaccination or masking up and social distancing at the event. And although Press Secretary Karine Jeanne-Pierre curtly cut off a reporter when asked about testing requirements for another recent fete at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one would expect that the state dinner with French President Emmanuel Macron and other high-profile White House events would have been subject to similar precautions. But at the official photo ops at these meet-and-greets with the president, attendees have been asked to remove their masks, even if they had been wearing them before the camera snapped. With high-quality air filtration and rapid testing, these maskless moments are lower-risk, but the instruction to remove masks is just another aspect of the destructive interference coming from the White House—nothing to worry about, move on, nothing to see here—while those who matter most are cocooned from risk on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, it is just getting harder and harder for the rest of us to protect ourselves. If you’re a poor school district, Covid funding for ventilation isn’t nearly adequate to get the job done, even in a rich state like mine. Jha almost gleefully told us last August that vaccines, tests, and treatments for Covid are heading to the private sector: “My hope is that in 2023, you’re going to see the commercialization of almost all of these products. Some of that is actually going to begin this fall, in the days and weeks ahead.”
Who really “hopes” that Americans are going to have to fend for themselves in the rapacious private health care market during a pandemic? If the White House declares the public health emergency over later this year, that will strip protections from millions of Americans, depriving them of emergency health care coverage and lifting key restraints on private insurers’ ability to charge for vaccines, tests, and treatments for those lucky enough to have insurance. Jha, fond of saying “We have the tools” to manage this virus, wants you to believe that “we” will be fine, but it’s not ordinary Americans he is talking about.
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” would be a fitting motto for the current Covid response in the US. The milk and apples that Napoleon, Snowball, and Squealer consume in George Orwell’s Animal Farm are today the luxuries of MERV-13 ventilation systems, UV-C lights, rapid tests, bivalent boosters, Paxlovid on speed-dial from your concierge physician, working from home, and generous paid sick leave.
“Comrades!” he cried. “You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs are brainworkers. The whole management and organisation of this farm depend on us. Day and night we are watching over your welfare. It is for your sake that we drink the milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back! Yes, Jones would come back! Surely, comrades,” cried Squealer almost pleadingly, skipping from side to side and whisking his tail, “surely there is no one among you who wants to see Jones come back?”
They are doing this for us, for our benefit, because, like the animals in Orwell’s tale united in their desire to never see the return of Farmer Jones to Manor Farm, we want “normal,” so much that we are willing to accept mass death, disability, and disruption for the foreseeable future—though “we”—no, “they”—have the tools to stem the tide of this destruction. Halfway through the Biden presidency, it’s clear we’ve replaced the outright and explicit destructiveness of the Trump administration’s Covid response (other than the development of vaccines) with something with similar, deadly effects. Yes, it could be worse. But we’ve learned to stop asking questions, are snapped at by op-ed writers if we start to pose them, and remain happy to let others make decisions for us. After all, we might “make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?” In a better place, I would say, than believing the modern-day Squealers sent round to explain the world to us. A better place than where we are right now.