On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new, long-awaited guidelines around Covid-19. No longer does the agency recommend “staying at least 6 feet away from other people to reduce the risk of exposure,” which was apparently still best practice until yesterday. The agency also abandoned its recommendation that those who believe they’ve been exposed to the virus should self-isolate whether they are symptomatic or not.
The CDC still advises at-risk populations and those close to them to take sensible precautions and to submit to a Covid test if you’re feeling poorly. Moreover, the agency continues to promote masking in indoor settings where viral transmission is high, though the efficacy of that intervention in the absence of maintaining your distance from others is debatable. Most crucially, the CDC stresses the importance of vaccinating against Covid and boosting when appropriate. But the new guidelines have finally caught up with the reality most Americans have experienced for months. So, is the pandemic over?
Strictly speaking, no. Not according to Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid czar. “We are at a point in the pandemic where most COVID-19 deaths are preventable,” Jha said on July 12. That’s an admission that calls into question the Biden administration’s reported decision to extend the public health emergency declaration around Covid well into 2023. Nevertheless, as Jha recently told TIME magazine, “We need to get to a point where we have vaccines that are truly variant-resistant” before we can fully emerge from the pandemic. The advent of “such vaccines could still be three to five years away,” the magazine reported. But that liberating innovation is contingent upon making the necessary “strategic investments.”
The average American could be forgiven for wondering what happened to the trillions of dollars of “strategic investments” the country made to contend with the pandemic already. That—not the virus—is why the pandemic will linger. What we did to get through this crisis will haunt us. We won’t be rid of the pandemic’s specter until there has been a full accounting of the many mistakes we made in its midst.
From the onset of the pandemic until the end of 2021, the federal government had allocated a staggering $5 trillion. Most of that money was appropriated as a result of just two bills, the “CARES Act” of 2020 and 2021’s “American Rescue Plan Act.” Much of these funds were dedicated to relieving the burden imposed on Americans as a result of the artificial cessation of economic activity necessitated by the highly transmissible disease. Hundreds of billions of dollars in direct economic aid to individuals and businesses, as well as unemployment and stimulus benefits, were disbursed.
But, as the New York Times reported, these bills also produced “huge investments in the future.” Hundreds of billions of dollars were devoted to “improvements” in health care and transportation, and state and local governments received hundreds of billions in funding for various “modernization” efforts. “It’s a once-in-a-generation idea that the government would invest so massively in infrastructure,” University of Washington Professor Ryan Calo told the Times. And that was before the government spent another $1 trillion on infrastructure!
Before the end of last year, however, the Biden administration confessed that this astronomical sum was all but gone. The Covid coffers were not exactly bare. Indeed, many states were sitting on “unallocated funds” disbursed in 2020 to the consternation of House progressives. But the White House sought and could not secure a measly $15 billion to supplement vital Covid relief. So, where did all the money go?
If Republicans retake the House next year, they should dedicate themselves to a full accounting of where this money went. Much of it did not find its way to the people who needed it. This spring, the Labor Department estimated that “at least” $163 billion in “overpayments” went to both legitimate recipients of unemployment benefits and fraudsters. The Paycheck Protection Act, which provided forgivable loans to businesses adversely affected by the pandemic, was described by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz as an “invitation” to defraud the government. “What didn’t happen was even minimal checks to make sure that the money was getting to the right people at the right time,” he said. That program has disbursed roughly $800 billion, about half of which has been forgiven.
And that’s just the unintended misuse of pandemic-related relief. What about the intended squandering of this taxpayer-funded largess? The Republican Study Committee’s review of where some of these funds were supposed to go is just as enraging as the abuse of those funds: “tree equity work,” environmental justice “boot camps,” “safe smoking kits,” and syringes for using illicit narcotics, refurbishing a minor-league baseball stadium in New York, upping the prize money at Arizona horse-racing tracks, and providing public-school staff with instruction in “high-need topics” like “implicit bias” training and “restorative practices.” As a Department of Education document averred, the pandemic was a perfect time to engineer a “culture shift” in America’s schools.
This investigative work is only one element of a comprehensive retrospective on the pandemic. Americans should confront the impulses that led governments to close houses of worship, abrogate the rights of property owners, and draft private enterprise into the work of law enforcement in what were patently obvious violations of the Constitution. There should be hearings into the conduct of teachers’ unions and into school boards in the major metropolitan areas that clung to school closures long after the terrible consequences for young people’s mental health and educational advancement were known. And what connection was there between the engineered breakdown of society and the eruption of social tensions culminating in some of the costliest rioting the country has ever seen?
The public health apparatus’s reluctance, throughout this miserable event, to meet the public where it lives has become a cliché. They won’t budge, and the country is moving on without them. But moving on is impossible in the absence of a thorough reckoning. The Covid pandemic already seems unlikely to be “forgotten” by history like the outbreak of Spanish Influenza a century ago. Unlike our forebears, we marinate in our trauma. It’s incumbent on this generation to establish for posterity what went wrong over the last two and a half years, if only so that we will never do this again.