There are now fewer than 70 days to go until the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States. No matter which candidate you supported in the Democratic primaries, many of us breathed a sigh of relief as the election was called for the former vice president four days after people went to the polls.
As an epidemiologist, watching this pandemic unfold in this country with a ferocity that is still unabated, a weight was lifted off me and others in public health. Finally, we had actually turned a corner. With the announcement of President-elect Biden’s Covid-19 Task Force, which will put a roster of well-known, solid leaders in health at the table, the prospect of normal competence in our pandemic response was—is—now tantalizingly close.
But then. President Donald Trump refuses to concede. He has blocked any transition activities from happening, meaning the usual communications and discussions between incoming and outgoing administration officials isn’t occurring. In ordinary times, this would be a scandal; no sitting president has refused to concede an election and blocked the transition of power like this. Even in normal times, such petulance would be antidemocratic, putschist.
In a pandemic, when time is of the essence, these delays are catastrophic. Cases of Covid-19 are skyrocketing in the United States. On November 10, we had close to 140,000 new cases—an almost 70 percent increase from the previous two weeks and with cumulative cases now passing the 10 million person threshold. We’re well over 1,000 deaths per day now, too, with close to 1,500 as of November 10 and with cumulative deaths now just over 240,000 men, women, and children in our country.
Instead of breaking with the president, even as world leaders congratulate Biden on his victory, almost all of the GOP members of Congress, the Republican Party—and our own Russia Today, Fox News—have indulged Trump’s antics, risking a protracted stalemate on a transition that drags on for weeks. Count the dead: 1,000 per day, to be conservative. In a week, there will be 7,000 dead. In two weeks, 14,000 bodies buried in the cold, hard ground.
Many of us have been saying for months that this winter was going to be grim. Such predictions were not difficult to make in the context of a complete abdication of federal response to the pandemic, with mini-me Republican governors aping Trump’s nonchalance around the country. But although winter doesn’t actually start until December, the flood of viral transmission we expected—with cooler weather driving people indoors, with all of us tired, just exhausted and frustrated with social distancing measures, and with no visible support from our leaders—is here now.
It’s not clear people recognize the new danger in our midst. As the election returns intimated, many Americans have experienced this pandemic as an economic and social disaster—not an epidemiological one. Many people in the United States still don’t know someone who has contracted SARS-CoV-2, let alone died of Covid-19. So even news reports of a viral resurgence aren’t having the same effect as the first reports of the pandemic in the late winter last year did, prompting many people to shelter in place of their own volition. Right now, most new infections are happening in small social gatherings at home. As the holidays approach, as we crave the social connection we’ve all missed for most of this year, the chance for the virus to party-crash Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s celebrations is high. Set another chair for SARS-CoV-2.
As if the last 70 days of the Trump administration couldn’t get any worse, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that he has no appetite for pandemic relief of any useful size, telling the press: “I don’t think the current situation demands a multi-trillion dollar package. So I think it should be highly targeted, very similar to what I put on the floor in both October and September.” McConnell, of course, hasn’t crunched the numbers with epidemiologists, physicians, public health experts, or economists at his side.
Most people who actually know anything about the virus and its downstream economic and social effects recognize that a massive relief package is needed right now to put into place the public health measures that the current administration has ignored. We desperately need to get real, substantial support to ordinary Americans—not to the corporations who dined so well on the last pandemic relief bill.
Of course, McConnell doesn’t really care about the pandemic. He will continue to dance his one-note samba of political destruction, seeking to bring down the other party at all costs, even as the dead from Covid-19 pile up around him and the economy lies in ruins. While Trump himself may be gone in January, McConnell has high hopes of still being the majority leader in the Senate. If he is, the relief many of us in public health felt a few days ago will evaporate.
Yes, Biden can try to do things through executive order, to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to urge Americans to follow public health guidance. But the scale of the response we need right now to confront the pandemic and its economic and social costs is nothing short of a domestic Marshall Plan. Right now, McConnell is the one thing blocking our road to recovery. He is even deadlier than a virus.