America Has Elected Either Death or More Death

The options are either an ineffective pandemic response—or an utterly catastrophic one.

Garrett-Laurie-foreign-policy-columnist9
Garrett-Laurie-foreign-policy-columnist9
Laurie Garrett
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden puts his mask back on after delivering remarks following a coronavirus briefing with health experts at the Hotel DuPont on August 13, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden puts his mask back on after delivering remarks following a coronavirus briefing with health experts at the Hotel DuPont on August 13, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden puts his mask back on after delivering remarks following a coronavirus briefing with health experts at the Hotel DuPont on August 13, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Regardless of whether Democratic nominee Joe Biden manages to secure election to the presidency—and survive the subsequent legal assaults from the Republican Party—his administration would almost certainly be checked by a Republican Senate. That means the COVID-19 pandemic will rage on, unfettered by any robust federal action and only slowed in a few states where governors are determined to adhere to their public health guidance.

Still, even that would be preferable to President Donald Trump winning reelection. He has vowed to opt for a do-nothing approach to COVID-19, biding time until an effective vaccine is found and put to use. Access to the vaccine might well require health insurance, offering the possibility of a deliberate class-based survival rate in the American epidemic. Whether the Trump policy is labeled “herd immunity” or not doesn’t matter: It will boil down to allowing the virus to spread, on the assumption that fewer than 2 percent of the infected will die of COVID-19, and most of them will come from racial minorities and retired senior populations. There will be an unstated notion of “expendable” populations, dying amid rising overall societal immunity.

If Biden is sworn into the presidency on Jan. 20, 2021, he will greet an epidemic that may have caused well over 400,000 American deaths by that time and that will continue to rage across all 50 states. He will do battle with the Senate on every pandemic effort: working with the World Health Organization (WHO), joining the COVAXX global access commitment for vaccines and drugs, guaranteeing affordable access to COVID-19 medicines and coronavirus vaccines for all Americans and people in middle-income and poor countries. There will be no effective global strategy for COVID-19 control save building a bridge to a vaccine, and then fighting to immunize as much of the world as possible.

Regardless of whether Democratic nominee Joe Biden manages to secure election to the presidency—and survive the subsequent legal assaults from the Republican Party—his administration would almost certainly be checked by a Republican Senate. That means the COVID-19 pandemic will rage on, unfettered by any robust federal action and only slowed in a few states where governors are determined to adhere to their public health guidance.

Still, even that would be preferable to President Donald Trump winning reelection. He has vowed to opt for a do-nothing approach to COVID-19, biding time until an effective vaccine is found and put to use. Access to the vaccine might well require health insurance, offering the possibility of a deliberate class-based survival rate in the American epidemic. Whether the Trump policy is labeled “herd immunity” or not doesn’t matter: It will boil down to allowing the virus to spread, on the assumption that fewer than 2 percent of the infected will die of COVID-19, and most of them will come from racial minorities and retired senior populations. There will be an unstated notion of “expendable” populations, dying amid rising overall societal immunity.

If Biden is sworn into the presidency on Jan. 20, 2021, he will greet an epidemic that may have caused well over 400,000 American deaths by that time and that will continue to rage across all 50 states. He will do battle with the Senate on every pandemic effort: working with the World Health Organization (WHO), joining the COVAXX global access commitment for vaccines and drugs, guaranteeing affordable access to COVID-19 medicines and coronavirus vaccines for all Americans and people in middle-income and poor countries. There will be no effective global strategy for COVID-19 control save building a bridge to a vaccine, and then fighting to immunize as much of the world as possible.

If Trump is sworn in, even those standards will not be met. He will scoff at the entire United Nations system and all multilateral COVID-19 control efforts, making the “America first” motto the guiding mantra for every drug, treatment, vaccine, and innovation that shows promise against the coronavirus. The nationalistic stratagem will inspire similar action worldwide, threatening the already fragile alliance built by WHO.

In the end, the biggest winners are Fox News and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Ratings for Fox now outstrip any other TV news operation, led by their most right-wing commentators. And the virus spawned 91,000 new American cases on Election Day. One of COVID-19’s victims was actually elected to the North Dakota state legislature on Tuesday, despite having died of a disease he, in agreement with Trump, claimed was no big deal. That vote, more than Biden’s election and ineffectual governance, could mark the most fitting end to a political era utterly subsumed by cynicism and fantasy.

Laurie Garrett is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. Twitter: @Laurie_Garrett

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