This is how it ends, part one
Happy New Year, readers. A strange thing happened during the DC Diary’s festive break. The Covid arguments once written off as fringe and dangerous not only went mainstream but were made by some of the high priests and priestesses of the public health establishment.
Dr. Anthony Fauci Zoomed onto the cable news shows to point out that case numbers aren’t necessarily the right metric to track and clarified that many of the children registered as Covid hospitalizations are hospitalized with Covid, not because of it. He said that the Omicron variant may end up being “more of a bothersome upper-respiratory infection” for the vaccinated or previously infected. Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore public health official and CNN regular, has said that cloth masks don’t work. Former FDA commissioner and Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb agreed on the Sunday shows. These are the sort of statements that, not too long ago, would get you booted off of social media or, at least, have your posts flagged as misinformation.
When it comes to the national policy response, the CDC dropped its recommended isolation to five days. Joe Biden, whose core 2020 campaign claim was that a more competent president would bring the pandemic to an end, declared that “there is no federal solution” to the pandemic. The administration that promised to defeat Covid decisively now says that America must learn to live with the virus. Everywhere there are one-time Covid hawks reminding Americans of the need to keep calm and carry on.
What is going on? Is the medical establishment taking a leaf out of George Constanza’s book, deploying an “opposite” strategy in hope of better results?
The reformed Covid hardliners will tell you that it’s just a question of science. Omicron is less lethal than previous iterations of the virus. The vaccines work. And so the cost-benefit analysis does not support the kind of interventions they supported in 2020 and for much of 2021.
According to more cynical accounts, the about-face has more to do with politics than science: with a Democrat in the White House, public health authorities want to minimize the pandemic’s significance to help Biden save face. A less partisan but equally tribal version of the same story puts the change in tune down to breakthrough cases: now that this is not a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” as Biden called it only a few months ago, and now that the virus can still infect those who have done everything right — masked, vaxxed and boosted — the constituency for castigation has shrunk and the appetite for laissez-faire has grown.
The virus has a funny way of avoiding absolute vindication or neat narratives, and this time is no different. Neither of these one-sided versions of recent events quite stacks up. Omicron’s lower virulence really has changed even the most cautious arithmetic, while its awesome transmissibility has forced the risk-averse to seriously reckon with the unpleasant truth that they will catch the very thing they have spent nearly two years trying to avoid.
Yet this is about more than “the science”: dogmas are being ditched, previously unspeakable truths are being uttered. That has to do with politics, yes, but also psychology. Covid hawkery isn’t just tiresome, but tiring.
This is how it ends, part two
On one level, explaining the change of tune is less important than the simple fact that it is happening. For months, the predominant critique of the Covid hardliners was that they wanted the pandemic to roll on forever. They enjoyed the television appearances and the moral high ground. Germaphobes and recluses had seen their hang-ups elevated to the status of virtues. Why would they want to go back to normal?
And yet here we are. To be clear, Covid hawkery hasn’t exactly evaporated overnight. Even as the logic of the virus undermines the case for vaccine mandates, those onerous rules remain firmly in place. Thanks to the Omicron surge, thousands of schools are closed. The teachers’ unions seem irredeemably work shy. And for all that the Biden administration clearly wants people to get on with life, many local and state level Democrats are yet to get the memo.
But these Democratic divisions only add to the feeling that we are in the endgame of pandemic politics. Scrambled arguments, a topsy-turvy world in which it is increasingly hard to distinguish the hawks from the doves, the conspiracy theorists from the control freaks, no one side able to claim vindication. And a variant ripping through the population in a way that humbles any kind of coordinated response — but doesn’t actually claim that many lives. This, one suspects, is how it ends.
The Canadians are coming
The forthcoming anniversary of the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill will be an occasion for all manner of bad takes. Brace yourself for overblown warnings about the end of the republic, as well as absurd apologia (such as the claim from one American Greatness contributor that the right should celebrate the date as “our storming of the Bastille”). But who will take the title of Worst Take? An early contender comes from north of the border. In the Globe and Mail, John Ibbitson asks: “If the next presidential election reveals the US hurtling toward possible violence and autocracy, should Canada try to intervene?”
AOC heads south
In a move uncharacteristically representative of her native New York City, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has escaped the gloom and cold of the Northeast with a trip to Miami. Her decision to sample to benefits of life in the low-tax and Covid-lax Sunshine State drew charges of hypocrisy and accusations that she was running away from a huge Covid surge in her hometown.
Presented with a photo of the lawmaker on vacation, former Trump campaign adviser Steve Cortes focused on her boyfriend’s choice of footwear, pointing out that “her guy is showing his gross male feet in public…with hideous sandals.” If it was odd for Cortes to home in on AOC’s partner’s Birkenstocks (an unfairly maligned shoe, #conservativesforclogs), AOC somehow managed to make things weirder. “If Republicans are mad they can’t date me,” tweeted the lawmaker, “they can just say that instead of projecting their sexual frustrations onto my boyfriend’s feet. Ya creepy weirdos.” An appropriately grown-up response from the voice of Millennial socialism.
What you should be reading today
President Biden Job Approval
Approve: 43.1 percent
Disapprove: 53.3 percent
Net approval: -10.2 (RCP Average)
Job approval of other federal leaders (percentage who approve)
John Roberts: 60 percent
Jerome Powell: 53 percent
Anthony Fauci: 52 percent
Anthony Blinken: 49 percent
Kevin McCarthy: 46 (Gallup)