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Tyler Cowen: Biden’s COVID diagnosis is a wake-up call for America

From the commentary: Most individuals are not so anti-scientific, nor do they have such complex theories. They are simply tired of the pandemic and its consequences — on our longevity, our health, our society and our state of mind.

President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at Max S. Hayes High School on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Cleveland.
President Joe Biden speaks to supporters at Max S. Hayes High School on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Cleveland.
(Angelo Merendino/Getty Images/TNS)
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The news that President Joe Biden has tested positive for COVID should serve as a wake-up call for the rest of us: Almost three years on, the pandemic is still not going very well.

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Perhaps it’s human nature to put bad news out of mind. Still, one reason so many people have chosen to ignore COVID-19 may be that they are wary, and weary, of public health authorities. If people admit COVID is still a big problem, they are implicitly giving regulators permission to control their lives once again. But people are tired of lockdowns, mandatory testing, canceled school sessions and travel restrictions. And so they are fighting back with the ultimate form of nonviolent resistance — forgetting about the issue altogether.

Consider this sorry state of affairs in a broader context.

This post-vaccine phase of COVID is worse than many expectations. More than 300 Americans, and sometimes as many as 400, are dying each day. If COVID were some new malady that had just emerged this year, this would be big news indeed.

The pandemic also continues to have a corrosive effect on the ability to make plans. Even if you are young, in good health and relatively safe, you have to worry about those you might infect. Planning conferences or family trips now is more difficult than it was in 2019, in part because it is not clear who exactly is going to show up.

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Another possible problem is long COVID. Even among experts, there are dramatically varying answers as to how bad a problem long COVID is going to be. Some dismiss the phenomenon altogether, others suggest there are incontrovertible biomarkers of its relevance.

As an economist, I view this debate through the concept of expected value. Say that there is a 20% or 30% chance that 1% of the American public will have longer-term problems resulting from COVID infections. The expected costs of that scenario still are enormous.

Yet the response to this crisis remains lackadaisical. There is an urgent need for a new Operation Warp Speed for pan-coronavirus vaccines, which show increasing signs of working against known new and unknown future variants. So far no such plans are in the offing, and updating the previous vaccines (based, to be clear, on now-obsolete strains) may take nearly as long as it did to develop the original vaccines.

Why is the pandemic no longer a preoccupation of most Americans? Even many people I know who used to refresh the various coronavirus trackers regularly, no longer do. People have moved on. (There are exceptions; when I visited the Bay Area last month, I observed people walking alone, outside, wearing masks. Many of them are, unfortunately, still living in 2020.)

The lack of interest is not confined to the U.S. So far this year, I have traveled to England, Ireland, Portugal, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy and Colombia. With the possible exception of Italy, where I observed a fair amount of mask-wearing, most people in those countries seemed to be ignoring COVID-19.

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I consider this optimal private behavior for most people; I took off my mask (except for when I had COVID) once I was allowed to. But I worry about the public implications of this attitude. When it comes to pandemics, people seem to have either an “on” or “off” switch. Ideally, the approach should be more along the lines of: “I need to get on with my life, but I will exercise caution when appropriate. In the meantime, a vigorous public-sector response is still needed for better vaccines and therapeutics.”

Yet people are afraid that such an attitude could be used against them. And so a variety of defense mechanisms kick in. Some take the form of intellectual chicanery, such as blaming the vaccines rather than the malady, or blaming the failure to deploy hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin or whatever other supposedly miracle cure is on offer. When I hear people create these diversions, in my mind I hear voices screaming: “We are not going to let you do this to us again!”

But most individuals are not so anti-scientific, nor do they have such complex theories. They are simply tired of the pandemic and its consequences — on our longevity, our health, our society and our state of mind.

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And so they retreat, if only mentally and emotionally. And a catatonic America continues to stumble through a disappointing response to one of the greatest challenges this country has ever faced.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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