There’s a meme going around based on the old philosophical thought experiment of the trolley problem. Instead of branching trolley tracks—one track with people tied to it, one without, and a man at the switch—it’s just one track with a trolley running over a long line of victims. It’s captioned “Trolley Problem 2020: you can only watch.”
I’m writing this before the Thanksgiving holiday. The graph of U.S. COVID infection rates isn’t quite at an exponential vertical, but it’s approaching it. Joe Biden, as part of his transition, has finally released his COVID response plan. The high-level summary: keeping the public informed, ensuring supply chains for personal protective equipment are in place, and sloganeering: “listen to science.”
Dr. Steven W. Thrasher wrote a critique of Biden’s plan for Scientific American. He worries that the plan’s mandate for masks even in low-risk outdoor settings may reduce compliance elsewhere. Biden claims his plan is apolitical; Dr. Thrasher points out that all public health policy is political. Biden’s plan calls for an information dashboard displaying infection rates by location on a granular level, and Dr. Thrasher is worried this data will merely reflect that poor people and minorities get COVID more often, which they do, as a direct result of structural injustice. He’s concerned that this could lead to stigmatization and may be used to justify more discriminatory attitudes and policing. Dr. Thrasher also notes with dismay that Biden has appointed Ezekiel Emanuel to his taskforce. Dr. Emanuel is bioethicist who hopes he dies at 75 because he believes people who can’t work have no meaningful quality of life. COVID kills the elderly and disables survivors at high rates. I agree with Dr. Thrasher that Dr. Emanuel’s involvement is therefore alarming.
Still, I think Thrasher has let Biden off easy.
First, the information dashboard strikes me as fine to have, but silly as a central component of the plan. The people who are taking it seriously are already staying home as much as work and childcare permit, and those who aren’t taking it seriously are not going to change their plans because of a website. The science is already pretty clear—don’t meet up with people—and yet restaurants and churches and workplaces remain open. As far back as July, the liberal governor of Massachusetts scolded his constituents for gathering, when it was perfectly legal to do so. The resulting case spike is a predictable outcome of his own policies. That scold-and-do-nothing approach has extended to the Thanksgiving holiday.
We can already see how keeping people informed with no further support or constraints will play out. The CDC advises against traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday, and yet more than half of the country will be traveling anyway. In any given public place, you can see dozens of noses peeking over masks. We can all rage about the negligent foolishness of our fellow Americans—I’m not thrilled with them myself—or we can concede that public health policy that doesn’t respond to actual on-the-ground compliance is badly designed.
That brings us to masks. As I said before, Biden’s plan places an emphasis on personal protective equipment, and especially on a national mask mandate. But there is a problem beyond the limited supplies of masks, and even beyond low compliance with mask wearing: the virus, under certain circumstances, is airborne. Even high-quality, properly fitted masks do not provide complete protection. Airborne transmission amidst millions infected means no amount of time spent in an enclosed space with others is without risk. Not even while wearing a mask. The lone reliance on masks and handwashing (both of which are necessary, but not even close to sufficient) to the exclusion of other measures borders on “hygiene theater.” Just like security theater is more about advancing a worldview (that the world is not safe), hygiene theater is similarly political. Biden’s plan directs us towards small, individual things we can do because they draw our attention away from a more collective, organized approach. What we very likely need—the thing that has been overwhelmingly successful in countries like China for saving lives—is a swift and comprehensive lockdown.
Even knowing this, Joe Biden has repeatedly ruled out a lockdown. On November 19th, in response to a question from the press on the possibility of a lockdown, Biden said, “I am not going to shut down the economy. Period. I’m going to shut down the virus. […] I’ll say it again: no national shutdown. Because every region, every area, every community—it can be different. And so there’s no circumstance which I can see that would require total national shutdown.”
I asked a friend of mine, scientist Dr. Héctor E. Alcalá, an assistant professor in the Stony Brook University Program in Public Health, what he thought about Biden’s statement. His response:
Biden’s comments are confusing for two reasons. First, he makes a false distinction between shutting down the economy and shutting down the virus. Limiting economic activities are one tool that can help curtail the spread of the virus. He’s plainly saying that a national shutdown is not in his toolkit and implying that this is the case even if the science should call for it. Second, Biden is signaling that he is prepared to endorse shutdowns at a regional level, but not a national level. The logic behind this is purely dependent on what the reality of the pandemic is once he takes office. We may be in a situation where regional shutdowns are sufficient, but we simply do not know this at the moment.
Biden’s plan is on rails. It’s not responsive, and that means it’s not scientific.
His economic plan isn’t any better. There’s no promise of stimulus money for individuals beyond unemployment benefits, but there are, of course, handouts for corporations. And do I really need to go into how outrageous it is that individuals must not only bury their family members, but will receive a hospital bill after their deaths? We are faced with the absurdity of watching our entire system fail us while we pay for it. Biden proposes to expand Obamacare with a public option that will allow certain poor individuals to buy into Medicaid. This will continue a two-tiered system that would still leave millions without insurance and more without healthcare they can afford. It will further solidify Medicare as a program for the poorest and the sickest. Medicare is already a sitting duck for any conservative (Republican or Democrat) who wants to look like a budget hawk; it will be even more so after a public option, and Biden knows it. Like Biden’s COVID plan, it’s unresponsive to the moment, half-assed, and destined to fail.
As Dr. Alcalá points out above, Biden’s distinction between “shutting down the virus” and refusing to “shut down the economy” is nonsensical. The pandemic is driving unemployment, long breadlines, and evictions. Food insecurity in America has doubled. If you aren’t wealthy, your ability to maintain your livelihood is massively constrained. Jeff Bezos and his ilk, however, are doing great. This crisis has stratified our society even further—American billionaires have added nearly a trillion dollars to their net worth since March. The American worker’s bottom line would benefit from a swift end to the pandemic by any means necessary, so the “economy” Biden is refusing to shut down is that of capitalist enterprise, to the benefit of the wealthiest Americans. This is not merely incompetence (although it is also that). This is mass social murder for the profit of the bourgeoisie.
Here is how Biden’s policies will affect my life: currently, I am employed by the government as an essential worker, processing documents for the 2019 tax season. I’m also asthmatic, and about half the time I get the flu I end up in the emergency room. No COVID information dashboard is going to change the fact I will be in a building sharing air with a thousand other people, each touching a thousand documents per day mailed in from as many homes. A big angry red wound may very well appear on a map over my workplace. It could easily become a plague den, soon to be run by the Biden administration. Armed with this information, I will be able to do absolutely nothing.
I must work. I have no control over the environment of the building. I can’t make my coworkers wear their masks properly or make them stay home if they have a fever and believe COVID is just the flu. I can’t change that the virus is airborne indoors and no amount of mask-wearing or handwashing will guarantee that my coworkers and I are safe from transmission. A map telling me I am in the path of an oncoming train with no means to get out of the way isn’t public health policy, it’s a bad joke. Joe Biden is fully aware there are federal agencies working under these conditions—hell, innumerable private industries are working under these conditions. My point, however: without a lockdown and work stoppage, people will be working in conditions sure to spread the disease, and he knows it. He publicly sells you a bill of goods about “listening to the science.” He is lying. That disgusts me, and it should disgust you too.
Despite Biden’s insistence his plan is apolitical, that’s also a lie. The common thread that unites all of Biden’s COVID policies is that they rely on individual action rather than a unified, large-scale response. Liberalism is the political philosophy underpinning the capitalist free market, and this COVID plan is a free-market approach. We are meant to tackle this as individuals, on our own. The government will give us more information, it will make sure masks are available for sale, tell us to wear them, and if that’s not enough to save your life, well, hurry up and die. It doesn’t matter that these individualistic measures are vastly insufficient. It doesn’t even matter that infection rates are now skyrocketing, and, even if vaccine development and distribution goes flawlessly, meaningful immunization rates are at least half a year off. It doesn’t matter that the online disinformation engines have now given rise to a significant cohort of anti-vaxxers, so even that may be too optimistic. Biden’s fundamentally conservative free-market approach is more important to him than the hundreds of thousands of lives he could save with a minimally competent COVID response.
I will not attribute Biden’s refusal to consider a national lockdown to a mere lack of presidential qualities. There is nothing more presidential than senseless mass murder. I feel my anger rising—what’s even appropriate anymore? What is objective, now, with a quarter million dead and more coming? Only rage. I can see the next decade stretching in front of us as a parody of the last. A tepid Democrat fumbling the response to COVID and its attendant recession, millions dead, disabled, and impoverished, the country left vulnerable to yet another fascist. We will soon be back here again at a new and worse crisis. Everybody knows it, nobody is stopping it, and I am angry.
There’s an old adage: don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. Liberals would probably suggest it applies here. I’m not demanding a perfect approach to COVID—although if I did, what would be wrong with that? Lives hang in the balance. But no, I am simply asking for measures of proven effectiveness. Unfortunately, liberalism has a compulsion to find the median between two extremes. Democrats approach the ethical, the just—any kind of good thing worth having—by halves and never arrive. We careen from emergency to emergency because they never do quite enough to address the last crisis or prevent the next one. As we hurtle towards millions dead or disabled by COVID before the vaccine can be distributed, as President-elect Biden rules out science-based approaches to solving the problem while lying about his commitment to science, the bloody rot at the heart of liberalism has never been more apparent.
I will leave you with this: the American worker is not synonymous with liberalism. Workers existed before capitalism, and we don’t reap capitalism’s real benefits—that is reserved for the ownership class. Even so, from inside of it, it can feel as if we have no choices and no future. But liberalism is on rails. Liberalism has no future. We can break free of it, and if we do, we will outlive it. ♦
M.K. Anderson is a writer with several short fiction credits. She has worked as a direct care provider and a coordinator of care for individuals with dual diagnosis developmental disabilities and mental illness in an ICF/ID institution. Later, she worked as a financial analyst overseeing the administration of Medicaid insurance contracts. She can be found at mk-anderson.com.