The late Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the House, supposedly said that all politics is local. In the age of COVID-19, all politics is now personal. The existential threat that has carried off half a million Americans, battered the economy and paralyzed social life quite naturally towers over all other issues in the eyes of the public.
It was the pandemic, not Joe Biden, that defeated Donald Trump by denying him the capacity to command and manipulate attention at will. And, perhaps fittingly, it’s the success and fairness of the vaccination campaign that may determine the fate of the Biden administration. The public’s perception of how government has dealt with this disaster will incline it to benevolent respect or protesting fury when we finally meet again in the city square.
But all these lofty matters are experienced as a series of personal and family dramas. Let me offer my own journey to vaccination as an example. On Jan. 18, my wife and I registered online to be vaccinated in Fairfax County, Virginia, where we live. We were in the second age group, right behind the Very Old Ones, and we had registered early, so we felt optimistic that we would be called up soon. That didn’t happen.
As the weeks passed and we learned that more than half of our age group had been vaccinated, strange anxieties troubled our minds. We felt almost as if we didn’t exist—something probably more common than has been acknowledged amid the isolation of the lockdown. We also worried whether the county had lost our request. (Late in the game, we received reassurance from the authorities that yes, we did exist, and yes, we were still officially waiting in some indeterminate place in a long queue.) There were moments of frustration and anger.
In truth, I knew better, and my reaction should have been grounded on a wider perspective. In the grim springtime of 2020, I was aware through acquaintances of the opinions of top health specialists and researchers. They all sang the same tune: “Coronaviruses are tricky. There may never be a vaccine. If one is developed, two years would be a wildly optimistic deadline; three years would count as very fast.” Instead, within 10 months we had not one but two vaccines, with a third one ready for distribution four months later.
Credit belongs to institutions that are typically on the receiving end of the public’s rage. The drug industry, villain in so many movies, got to play superhero at last. The federal government shook off its congenital torpor and rammed through subsidies and processes that allowed vaccine development to proceed in record time. Even fortresses of bureaucratic inertia like the Food and Drug Administration were battered into submission by a government that was responding to the level of the public’s anxiety and a political class that, for all the bickering and posturing, got things done—and I include in the group the posturer-in-chief, Trump, who presided over this “Warp Speed” exercise.
Then American productive capacity got cranked to high gear, and vaccines representing the potential end of the pandemic began to be dispensed in vast numbers. Here was change from the confusion and double-talk of the early months of the crisis. Here was change, too, from all the invidious comparisons, so prevalent in the media, between the United States and other, supposedly better-managed national governments. Among large countries with reliable statistics, the U.S. vaccination rate is second only to Britain’s, which began approving vaccines sooner and hence got an earlier start. Nobody else comes close.
In terms of vaccine production, the U.S. stands alone at the top, with India a distant second and the rest of the world lost in the distance. The facts tell a positive story. Why it appears less interesting to the information sphere than failure and blame-finding is something that bears reflecting upon.
That mighty engine of U.S. production proved to be the source of my deliverance. A large batch of Pfizer vaccines was distributed to Fairfax County; soon after, we were notified that we could make an appointment for any one of multiple open dates and times. We chose the following morning: Feb. 26. The seemingly interminable delay had lasted six weeks. We had registered at the earliest possible moment, but 42,000 county residents had done the same thing—evidence, if any was needed, of the public’s mute desperation to resume normal life.
On arrival at the sports medicine complex that was our vaccination site, we were met by an astonishing scene. A line of hundreds of people of various ages and conditions snaked around the building and far beyond. There was little conversation, as all complied with that bleak pandemic formality, social distancing. The mood was expectant rather than cheerful.
But I had no doubt that I was partaking of a transcendental moment, a ritual of national renewal. The people on that line just wanted to move on with life. Fairfax County has voted Democratic for years but has its share of Republicans and Trumpists. That didn’t matter. Tribal and political conflicts portrayed as life-or-death struggles in the media shrink to insignificance when confronted by a true life-or-death situation. At that moment, we all belonged to the same tribe and the same party. We were choosing life.
The line moved remarkably fast. Organization was surprisingly smooth. At a casual glance, the vaccine dispensers looked to be predominantly female. Mine was chatty. My wife was given her shot by a middle-aged woman stressed and uncertain about proper procedure. “They keep changing the rules on us,” she complained.
We witnessed what she meant almost immediately after. I was given a hard range of dates for the second vaccine. My wife was given an equally hard but different range of dates. As we puzzled over this in the waiting area, a person with a loud, authoritative voice said that all of us had to get our second vaccines within my range of dates. So, I did a victory dance. Then, as we got ready to leave, the same person proclaimed, just as loudly and authoritatively, that we had to get our second vaccines within my wife’s range of dates. Questions about a conflict of dates were dismissed with a vigorous shake of the head. “No, that’s wrong,” the authoritative person said.
The rules kept changing; that could be the motto of the entire pandemic episode. During this time, the elites and the media have sought to portray “science” as God and “scientists” as its prophets, risen above uncertainty and error. That is unfair both to the method and to the practitioners. Science is messy business. Outcomes are difficult to test and measure, particularly where human life is involved. When doing science at warp speed, masses of data are generated, a moving target for interpretation. At every level, from the lords of the health bureaucracy to the humble vaccine dispensers, the human factor ensures the prevalence of doubt and the possibility of blunder.
Science has been described as “enforced humility.” It would have been helpful if the same quality had been reflected in elite and media rhetoric.
The wonder is how much has been achieved under these conditions. As we left the building, the line of hopeful recipients of scientific research had grown considerably. Hundreds were being vaccinated every hour at that particular site alone—many thousands per day. The effect of the campaign has already been felt. COVID-19 infection rates have begun to decline. President Biden assures us that there will be enough vaccines for “every adult in America” by the end of May. We are approaching the end of this hour of tribulation.
The question now is what comes next. We have been granted a rare gift: the future as a wide-open frontier, with the chance, if we wish to seize it, of resetting our social and political lives along saner and more constructive lines. We can, of course, sink back into a mood of rant and rage. The analyst in me whispers that we probably will. But I confess I drove out from that unexpected ceremony of solidarity with my neighbors believing that we have wasted enough energy in tearing down and casting away—and it was time to build.