You'd think that in the two-plus years since March 2020, the US government might have learned a thing or two about the importance — and precarity — of public health messaging.
Unfortunately, though, the gov's dismal initial response to monkeypox was only a sign of things to come. This weekend, President Joe Biden's declared on "60 Minutes" that the "pandemic is over" — yet another galling high level failure to grapple with the ongoing fallout of the coronavirus.
"We still have a problem with COVID," Biden told CBS News reporter Scott Pelley. "We're still doing a lot of work on it… but the pandemic is over."
First off, it's worth noting that Biden is disagreeing with his own CDC, which is still using the word "pandemic." The context of the remark was also striking, coming as the president made his way through last week's Detroit auto show. The event, which used to be an annual affair, hadn't taken place since 2019; three years later, the cars and the crowds were back, with little to no restrictions and hardly a mask in sight.
"If you notice, no one's wearing masks," the President continued as he and Pelley walked through the automotive spectacle. "Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape. And so I think it's changing. And I think this is a perfect example of it."
To Biden's credit, it's certainly true that we're at a different point in the pandemic. The general expert consensus seems to be that COVID-related restrictions will continue to subside, and while we'll continue to live with the virus, the focus will stay on preventing severe illness rather than halting the spread of the virus altogether. We'd also agree with Biden that the Detroit auto show is a pretty good example of the stage in the pandemic that we're currently in. But the fact that we're in a better place with the virus doesn't necessarily mean we're entirely in the clear. More than ten thousand Americans are still dying from COVID every month, and the specter of the upcoming cold and flu season looms large — a reality that the Biden administration reiterated as recently as earlier this month.
In fact, Biden's staff sound much more tuned in than he does on the issue.
"We have a virus out there that's still circulating, still killing hundreds of Americans every day," Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said at Sept 6 news briefing. "I think we all as Americans have to pull together to try to protect Americans… and do what we can to get our healthcare system through what might be a difficult fall and winter ahead."
And there lies the weight of Biden's error. Sure, we live in an environment where news moves fast, soundbites come and go, and truth becomes increasingly more abstract. But to so bluntly, contradict his own administration's messaging is as confusing to the American people as it is dangerous.
Of course, the administration would certainly face some bad press should a variant similar to Delta or BA.5 emerge over the colder months. Even more worrisome, however, is how Biden's "pandemic is over" remark might be taken out of context by anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers, who have long been skeptical of pandemic protocols and resource allocation. Per WaPo, the Biden administration is already having trouble securing more funds for COVID resources like tests and vaccines; Biden's conflicting remarks may hinder those efforts, both in political theater and in the court of public opinion. A statement like this is easily manipulated. The President asking for more pandemic-related cash, while claiming the pandemic is over? Conspiracy theorists love a loophole.
And even among the many Americans who are more or less in touch with reality, caution has waned. It's rare to see a mask these days, even in busy stores and airports where everybody's breathing air from faraway destinations. And who's to blame them? Unless you happen to look at COVID death counts every day, or have a friend or family member who died from the virus recently, it does feel like things are getting back to normal.
As a reality check, the Biden administration isn't the only political body warning that we're not quite on the other side of the pandemic. Just last week, the World Health Organization's (WHO) director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, issued a stark note about where we're at with COVID.
"We are not there yet but the end is in sight," Ghebreyesus explained at a press conference. "We can see the finish line. But now is the worst time to stop running."
At the end of the day, our Commander in Chief wasn't saying it was okay to go outside and lick handrails or anything. But to confuse his own White House's messaging, especially when it comes to a topic as delicate, conspiracy-ridden, and enduringly life threatening as the pandemic feels careless. Can Dr. Demetre Daskalakis just handle any and all public health announcements from here on out?
READ MORE: Biden says 'pandemic is over' [The Washington Post]
More on President Biden's time at the auto show: Joe Biden Mocked for Tweeting about Evs with Pic of Gas Car