In a recent interview on 60 Minutes, President Joe Biden declared that “the pandemic is over” despite more than 54,000 new COVID-19 cases and over 350 deaths per day on average.
OPINION: Yes, the death rate has fallen substantially since the vaccines arrived, but COVID isn’t done with us yet.
His comments shocked senior health officials and the medical community alike, leaving many to wonder if his comments were merely an oversight, wishful thinking or worse, tone deaf.
While the need for masks and social distancing has waned across the country—largely due to the success of the COVID-19 vaccine, which has prevented nearly 15 million deaths worldwide since December 2020—COVID remains a problem that cannot and should not be taken for granted, especially for Black and brown people who continue to die or be hospitalized at higher rates than any other group.
Age-adjusted data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) shows that Black, Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN), and Asian, Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islanders (NHOPI) still experience higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to white people. COVID-19 has hit AI/AN and Black communities the hardest—both groups are twice as likely to go to the hospital or die compared to other groups—while Latinx and NHOPI communities are doing slightly better, experiencing a death rate closer to white people.
It’s true that the death rate has fallen substantially in all groups as vaccine rates climb, but the declines are slower in Black and brown communities. Vaccine disparities are most stark in Black communities, where a combination of inequitable vaccine access and medical mistrust exists, but the risk of death or hospitalization remains high even in those who have received both vaccine shots and the booster due to underlying structural inequities in health, health care and socioeconomic status, factors that do not change because a person receives a shot in their arm.
More surprisingly, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander groups continue to experience higher death rates compared to white people, despite higher vaccination rates, highlighting the massive impact of underlying environmental and sociocultural differences on health outcomes. Conclusion: You can’t vaccinate away the problems.
My hunch is that President Biden is a far cry from the acrimonious presidents who have served before him, but he is not above reproach. Surely, the president is not alone in his skewed perception of the COVID-19 situation. He simply got caught expressing a feeling that so many people hold. We’re outside and enjoying the activities that we love again. We’re hearing fewer and fewer horror stories about mass COVID outbreaks in nursing homes and people struggling to breathe (even though these events are still taking place to some degree). As the talk about COVID or feeling sick dissipates, especially in the summer months, it’s getting easier and easier to shove the pain caused by the last two-plus years aside.
As a society, we are desperately trying to put this pandemic behind us—but we can’t simply will our way to victory against this virus. Over 220,000 people have died so far in 2022, seven times higher than the average flu season. Hundreds of thousands more are in the hospital, and millions more are in harm’s way, unvaccinated and therefore unprotected from the virus. We can acknowledge the progress made and express cautious optimism while also encouraging prudence.
President Biden may have intended to infuse some unbridled enthusiasm into a long and frustrating situation—one that has been made worse by lingering sickness (particularly symptoms of long COVID), rising inflation, and a looming recession—but as new issues arise, old ones don’t simply disappear. Relaxed COVID-19 regulations have made it possible for us to live in a relatively mask-free world that resembles our pre-pandemic world, but this only indicates that the health of the nation has gotten better. It is not a sign to stop the handwashing, vaccination and communitywide teamwork that has gotten us to this point. Any insinuation otherwise is misguided.
I’d like to believe that what surprised people about Biden’s comments wasn’t that he went off script but that he had a human moment that so closely resembles the moments we as medical professionals dream of…the day we can confidently tell our patients that this horrible period of time is over. Unfortunately, that day is not today—the continued disproportionate death rates of Black people at the hands of COVID are a sobering reminder.
Words matter. Truth matters. Both are much more than the intentions behind them because words and mistruths impact people in profound and unexpected ways. Declaring the pandemic over when it’s not does nothing but make the situation worse for the Black people who continue to suffer from COVID and its lingering social and economic impact on the community. Not only did the president inadvertently signal that the nation has moved on from COVID, even while people of color continue to suffer, but he may have rationalized and even paved the way for governors to cut much-needed COVID funding and resources in communities that need it most.
At its extreme, the underlying sentiment of the president’s declaration was cruel and insensitive, but even if we take a more empathetic route and infer that his comments were not meant to be so, the comment was myopic and shortsighted, a cautionary tale to think before you speak.
Moral myopia, the inability to see ethical issues clearly, is sometimes described as a distortion or blindness to issues that do not affect you—this idea that if you are OK then everyone else is OK, too. It is not far-fetched to expect our president to exhibit caution when talking about issues that may be impacting communities differently than his own. Yes, many people have beat COVID, staved it off entirely or learned to live with its many health complications. But for countless U.S. adults, the remnants of COVID-19—sustained unemployment, declines in mental health and increases in drug use and stress-related illness—have been and will be far worse to their health than the virus itself.
Let’s hope President Biden revisits his comments and acknowledges how they may have minimized the suffering that so many people have experienced and continue to experience. But even if he does not, I encourage you all to continue doing the things that got us to this point. Remain vigilant—doctor’s orders.