U.S. President Joe Biden holds a mask as he gives remarks on his administration's response to the surge in Covid-19 cases across the country on January 13, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

We Are Not 'In This Together': The Biden Adminstration's Covid-19 Policy Is Still Killing Vulnerable People

Our government has abandoned its responsibility to protect its citizens by blaming its failures on the very individuals it was elected to protect.

I have multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. The myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve endings hardens during these attacks, preventing nerve impulses from traveling where they should. These hardened nerve endings, or lesions, accumulate on the brains and spinal cords of people with MS. Because the central nervous system regulates the other bodily systems, MS lesions can cause an endless list of debilitating symptoms including fatigue, numbness, spasticity, pain, incontinence, blindness, cognitive dysfunction, paralysis, difficulty swallowing and breathing, and death. MS is unpredictable, progressive, and there is no cure. Frankly, it's terrifying.

The horrors of chronic illness and disability under capitalism are too numerous to count, even in the best of times.

I have been on several medications to slow the progression of my MS. Some have worked for a time, others not at all. I currently receive infusions that eliminate B cells, making me immunocompromised. Because of my treatment, I did not form antibodies from any of the four Covid-19 vaccines I've received. The absence of B cells and antibodies leaves me without two of three pillars of immunity against Covid-19 and puts me at risk for severe illness or death. I am between a rock and a hard place, or more precisely, between protecting myself from a devastating, incurable neurological disease and a deadly and ever-mutating virus.

Such paradoxes aren't rare for vulnerable people in the United States. The horrors of chronic illness and disability under capitalism are too numerous to count, even in the best of times. And despite our country's intense political divisions, everyone seems to agree that in the worst of times, vulnerable people are casually expendable for the sake of the economy. Under the leadership of both Republicans and Democrats, public health policy in the US consistently espouses eugenics. The Biden administration's Covid-19 policy is no different: it culls sick, disabled, and immunocompromised people from the population as part of its pledge to "return to normal."

The Biden administration's failure to protect vulnerable people from Covid-19 is evident in CDC director Rochelle Walensky's comments from January 7, 2022: "The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities. So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron."

Walensky's comments caused widespread outrage in the disability community but they only hint at the magnitude of this administration's cruel and normalized failure to protect vulnerable lives. In response to our outrage, the CDC, Biden, and their Covid-minimizing pundits continue to insist that our deaths are unfortunate, but inevitable. At the same time, they wage an ongoing campaign to convince the public that implementing simple measures to protect us would be too great a burden. In lieu of protecting the high-risk community with substantive public health policy like universal masking, improved ventilation, and adequate isolation periods, the CDC has assured us that it is "committed to continuing the dialogue," and "working to help reduce health disparities... with initiatives including providing accessible materials and culturally relevant messages."

Even in the wake of Biden's own diagnosis, his administration maintains that it doesn't need to mandate policy that would prevent Covid-19 health disparities because it "has the tools" to fix them. Yet the CDC's accessibility toolkit for people with disabilities and the White House's latest fact sheet for managing BA.5, the now dominant variant, offer the high-risk community little more than a regurgitation of their vaccination-only strategy. This is a strategy that relies on outdated vaccines that don't provide protection for many immunocompromised people and that are more easily evaded as the virus evolves. The CDC and Biden frame non-pharmaceutical interventions like masking and distancing as an imperative for the vulnerable and a choice for everyone else. Of course, non-pharmaceutical interventions are far less effective when only some members of the community use them. And allowing personal choice to guide public health behavior conditions people to believe that good outcomes are possible whether they choose to participate in the interventions necessary to achieve those outcomes.

Two of the administration's pharmaceutical "tools," the Paxlovid test to treat program and the monoclonal antibody Evusheld, were broadcast as panaceas for high-risk people when they were rolled out in December. But shortages, confusing guidelines, and uneven distribution have made these treatments inaccessible to many in the high-risk population. Recent data on Evusheld shows it is markedly less effective against Omicron sub variants, and growing evidence suggests that a five-day course of Paxlovid may not be enough to clear some infections, contributing to relapsing Covid-19. Sick, disabled, and immunocompromised people have been left with nothing to rely on but our ability to navigate a system that is indifferent to our deaths.

Meanwhile, Biden and the CDC have worked very hard to convince Americans that the demise of vulnerable people is an acceptable byproduct of the expression of their civil liberties. They've reassured the well and abled public that a performative gesture of pity for their sick, disabled, and immunocompromised neighbors mitigates the impact of hanging out at a bar or going maskless to the grocery store. But Biden and the CDC have also worked very hard to conceal the risks that Covid-19 poses to well and abled people. Not only has the public been convinced that it's reasonable to return to "normal" at the peril of the vulnerable, they've also been convinced that it's reasonable to return to normal at their own peril.

In May 2021, Biden announced that the CDC no longer recommended masks for vaccinated people, despite the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant in India and the UK. Then, in July 2021, he claimed that vaccinated people would not get Covid-19, and in October 2021 he claimed that vaccinated people cannot spread Covid-19. Neither of those claims are true, but Biden's comments enabled vaccinated people to base their behavior on a (misinformed) assessment of their own safety rather than the safety of their communities. Given official permission, much of the public abandoned mitigations like masking and distancing which were previously understood to be a civic responsibility.

Earlier this year, the CDC changed its default map metric from "community transmission levels", which reflects current cases, to "community levels'', which reflects hospital admissions. But data on hospital admissions can lag by weeks, resulting in maps that obscure, unsurprisingly, transmission at the community level. Currently, 93.14% of the US is experiencing high community transmission levels and hospital admissions have been on the rise since April. Biden and the CDC have consistently claimed that we are in a "pandemic of the unvaccinated" while 40% of those who died in February and March 2022 were, in fact, vaccinated (15% and 18% boosted, respectively). And BA.5 is 4.2 times more vaccine resistant than BA.2, which was the dominant in February and March when the data was collected. It is unforgivable for our government to hide such vital information when we've already lost more than one million Americans to Covid-19.

Although the CDC has finally published findings that one in five people who get COVID-19 in the US will get Long Covid, data that should have set off alarms to put stronger protections in place has been largely ignored. Our government officials have made little effort to educate the public about the fact that even a mild case of Covid-19 can lead to potentially devastating, multi-organ, multi-system complications, including those of the heart, brain, and lungs. The Biden administration and the CDC have put the onus on individuals to assess risk without giving them adequate information to calculate that risk.

As guidance from our government continues to perpetuate the myth that the pandemic is over for anyone who wishes it to be, life-saving community mitigations have all but disappeared. Perhaps this administration's most horrific act of negligence is its refusal to acknowledge that abandoning these mitigations is what ensures the continuing cycle of death and suffering from Covid-19. It has been devastating to watch the public use our government's monstrous guidance as an excuse to devalue vulnerable lives. Ending public health protections because sick and disabled people are disproportionately dying from Covid-19 is, unquestionably, eugenics.

Unfortunately, in the US, eugenics isn't just a monstrous policy choice. It's an American ideal. The notion that individual choice can somehow be substituted for public health policy has been seamlessly integrated into our country's deep-rooted doctrine of exceptionalism. The "urgency of normal" to go to brunch has replaced the moral imperative to protect others from death and disability. This open disregard for human life has been presented by our government as a uniquely American obligation to respect each other's "choices". But having a neurological disease and compromised immune system during a pandemic is not a choice. Death and suffering have been normalized to such a horrific extent that the vulnerable are now expected remain "civil" when asking not to be disposed of so that others can keep social plans intact. The moral vacuum of the current moment is shocking.

Those at high risk have been left to fend for ourselves. Most of us are hiding at home, looking for a meaningful way to divide up the 20,400 hours and counting we've spent trying to dodge Covid-19. Many of us have been forced to forgo essential medical care, isolate ourselves from our families and social networks, and choose between our lives and our livelihoods. In the absence of any financial support, many high-risk people who've been told that they should stay home can't afford to do so. The physical, psychological, and financial stress is overwhelming.

In May, the Biden administration issued a statement that we could see 100 million Covid-19 cases this fall and winter due to a lack of funding. Days later, Biden urged states to spend "leftover" Covid-19 relief on funding the police. Biden and the CDC continue to acknowledge the rise in Covid-19 cases as if there is nothing that they, the arbiters of public health policy, can or should do about it.

Our government has abandoned its responsibility to protect its citizens by blaming its failures on the very individuals it was elected to protect. This has been at the core of the Biden administration's message: bad Covid-19 outcomes are the result of individuals' bad choices. But as recent history has shown us, the most vulnerable people in our society, despite behaving the most responsibly on an individual basis, suffer the most. Biden's faulty pretext normalizes suffering by attributing it to the moral failings of its victims. The moral failure is of those in power, not those who suffer under that power.

As we approach a winter in which one third of the U.S. population could contract Covid-19, I suspect that well and abled people will once again feel that their lives are threatened by the consequences of their irresponsible, albeit misguided, behavior. They will return to performative allyship, and to news feeds full of cliches like "we're all in this together." Public health relies on compassionate, collective commitment from the public. In our current moment, it relies on the public's commitment to holding those in power accountable. Until the public demands accountability from those in power and from one another, we are most certainly not in this together.

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