First off, let me stress that I’m vaccinated myself, and that I support vaccination as a vital component of COVID response in the US.
That being said, US COVID policies—which at this point are centered on vaccination—have not been very successful to say the very least. We do, after all, rank #1 in deaths and are mishandling the current wave as if nothing could be learned from the previous ones. Our failure threatens the health of people not only here but around the world given the global scope of the pandemic. Other countries have employed much better methods, but we have so far failed to put them in practice them here. Adding insult to injury, much of the establishment political class and its partnered media is laying blame on a section of the population, rather than on the system where it belongs.
It’s a fact that—currently, anyway—being vaccinated greatly reduces your chance of dying or suffering serious illness from COVID. It’s also a fact that you can still pick it up and give it to other people, though—again, so far—at a lesser rate. So, in and of itself—that is, in the absence of other measures—vaccination does not stop the pandemic. It has the undeniable social benefit of reducing the number of hospitalizations, which reserves finite medical resources for other people, including those who are not vaccinated for whatever reason (more about that later). But vaccination by itself is insufficient.
This aspect of COVID vaccination—that it does not halt the spread—has been known from the beginning but was never adequately emphasized. Instead people had the impression that if they got their jabs, they were “safe.” They didn’t get this impression out of nowhere; they were given it by the US mainstream media, an institution that reflects the values of the ruling class, who prioritize economic considerations over people’s well-being.
A far better method would have started with widespread testing, contact tracing and appropriate quarantine (with full social support) from the very beginning. We can still do these things now.
It’s not news that quarantine works. The English word itself dates back to the 1660s, and is derived from the Italian, quaranta giorni—”forty days”—which designated the amount of time a foreign ship had to wait in the harbor before anyone could disembark and come into town if the ship was suspected of carrying the Plague. Such policies in Italy date back to the late 1300s, well before germ theory or other modern scientific concepts, but they figured out that such isolation works.
Were there people at the time who resented the forty day delay? Certainly, and in my research, I read about a town where a merchant was unwilling to wait and had the ship unloaded, and the resulting outbreak killed hundreds. So, not only trial-and-error but also willful disobedience proved the efficacy of the method.
Even though we have literally centuries of experience showing us what’s effective, this was apparently of no interest to the oligarchs who run the US, who never enforced real lock-downs where they were needed, and who won’t even broach the topic now.
Besides history, we also had the example of China, which moved quickly to isolate the outbreak, and succeeded in limiting their total number of cases and deaths to a number far, far lower than the US. (See my review of the 2020 book, Capitalism on a Ventilator, which contrasts the Chinese and US approaches in detail.) Life there is pretty much back to normal for most people, and has been for some time.
Obstinately refusing to take advantage of the teachable moment, Western media has only been critical of China, accusing them of dishonesty and of using authoritarian tactics. But Western media would say this no matter what, and the US would undoubtedly have done much, much worse if the virus had first shown up in Wichita instead of Wuhan. (As a side note, it is now believed that the so-called “Spanish” Flu of 1918 originated in Kansas, not the Iberian Peninsula, and was brought to Europe by US service men stationed there for WWI.)
But of course, they’re China so we can’t admit it if they do something well.
Our cultural arrogance is breathtaking, and China-bashing spans the political spectrum from right to left. This, too, is a product of US media. Was anybody talking about China ten years ago? Nope. Then Obama announced the “pivot to Asia” and with it came the return of ugly “yellow peril” sentiments. Trump was happy enough to take that baton, and there was never any danger it would be dropped if he lost the election. Biden’s China-bashing COVID ad during the 2020 campaign was grotesque, and his rhetoric since taking office hasn’t improved.
Even if Beijing wasn’t in the cross-hairs, it wouldn’t have made a difference because we don’t have anything to learn from anyone else anyway. That’s American exceptionalism.
This insularity is absurd in a world that increasingly requires international cooperation to tackle the issues that are facing the human race. COVID won’t be the last global pandemic and we have an enormous existential challenge besides: Climate Change. That’s where we really are “all in this together” whether we admit it or not, and in the future, as crisis follows crisis, the degree to which we insist on going it alone will be the degree to which we’re fucked.
And fucked we are with COVID. The policy of vaccination first and everything else second—or not at all—is good for corporate bottom lines, and that’s it. In yet another case of socializing costs but privatizing profits, Big Pharma got cash from the government to develop the vaccines, and is making money hand over fist to produce them. They were also granted ownership of the patents, which has stalled production in other countries, leading to what leftist commentators are rightly calling “vaccine apartheid.”
So what else should we do? Testing, contact tracing, and quarantine/lock-downs as needed.
Testing has not played a major part in US policy. Biden announced plans to distribute more tests “at cost” through Walmart, Amazon, Kroger and such places but if we were really serious, they wouldn’t be a product to buy, they’d be a free service at least as ubiquitous as corporate chain stores. Besides testing to see who has it, we should also be testing for antibodies to see who already contracted it in the past. We currently don’t have accurate numbers to work with. Much of what we do know—such as how Delta compares to other strains, for example—comes from other countries. The fact that we’re not serious about this here shows how slipshod we are.
“Contact tracing” is a term that’s barely been mentioned in the ongoing US conversation about COVID, yet it has been one of the prime tools in Asian countries where the spread has been successfully controlled. It’s not like we couldn’t do it here. In China, they have a smartphone app that uses location data to do some of this work; the app rates your current safety with a green, yellow or red badge, and lets you know when you have been around someone who tested positive. Some business and travel restrictions are based on the badge. Our phones are already tracking us here, whether we like it or not, so it would be relatively simple to implement something similar here.
These two activities—contact tracing and testing—when efficiently pursued, can lead to quarantine of individuals and/or lock-downs of particular geographic areas. Hand in hand with such limitations, government must extend support in the form of cash, health care, rent/mortgage assistance, and business and job protection, etc. Again, China did all these things, and was more capable to do so due to already existing community networks and to central planning.
Of course, we have “central planning” in the US, too. It just serves a much smaller number of people on a shorter timeline.
In the US, vaccination is the chief method being used not because it is the most effective way to deal with the pandemic, but because it is the most profitable for the oligarchs. This is how they can make the most money and suffer the least amount of disturbance to business-as-usual, that is, keeping the economy “open.” For the time being, anyway. Capitalists are notorious for short-term thinking and these choices will bite them in the ass eventually, which will be no consolation to all the regular folks who end up unemployed, homeless and grieving dead friends and family.
In the meantime, establishment media and politicians are focused on blaming the unvaccinated, and too many people have jumped on board the campaign.
First off, the unvaccinated are not a monolithic mob. Only some fit the caricature of the MAGA hat-wearing, conspiracy-spouting, horse-dewormer-taking crowd. Some are lefties with progressive political stances (as were many of the anti-maskers during the 1918 flu, incidentally). Overall, the unvaccinated are disproportionately low-income, uninsured, and less educated, and as we well know, all three of those statuses are the result of systemic issues in a country where the minimum wage hasn’t been raised in over a decade, the health care system, is for-profit and schooling is underfunded at the mandatory level and too expensive at the higher level.
The class of people who run the media, by contrast, are generally well-paid, adequately insured and are college educated. In their world, vaccination is readily available and they are not concerned about possible charges or about missing work to get the shot or to recover from side effects, and they don’t have mistrust toward institutions based on prior bad treatment in history, including medical malpractice.
The media and political establishment are presenting us—once again, as they almost always do—with a false choice and a manufactured dichotomy. In this case, the entire subject of COVID response has been reduced to whether you’re vaccinated or not. There’s no more talk about quarantines and about the necessary support that must accompany them. There’s little talk about testing and no talk at all about contact tracing. And of course, the entire discussion is happening as if the US was the only country on earth.
But nope, if we’re to believe the talking heads, it’s just a bunch of stupid selfish people—why not just say “deplorables”?—who are fucking it up for the rest of us.
I call bullshit.
Once again, credit and blame are being assigned to individuals, not the System. It’s like with Climate Change, where people are admonished to watch their own little carbon footprint, and we all ignore the gaping craters made by the Pentagon, Big Ag, and the resource extraction industries.
Would it help the dire situation in our nation’s hospitals right now if more people were vaccinated? Yes, absolutely.
Is that the entire story? Not by a long shot.
Is it in our interest to take a close look at the policies of China and other countries that have done better than us, and adopt what will work regardless of what the US Chamber of Commerce wants? Definitely.
Should the billionaires who have been profiting this whole time be relieved of the extra profits they made? No doubt.
But we should be skeptical whenever the media points the finger at any group of people and blames them for big national problems, be it the unvaccinated, Antifa, or some particular generation. It’s a dodge, so we won’t look at who’s really responsible: the ones George Carlin was referring to when he famously said: “They’ve got you by the balls.”
The 1%. That’s who should be getting the majority of our ire. Those MFers made out like the bandits they are over the last year and a half and now they’re trying to turn us on each other so they can keep shoveling it in. They’re the ones cutting off unemployment benefits, lifting the eviction moratorium, and refusing to enact an effective response to the health care emergency we are suffering through.
Yes, there are some folks among us who are misled and a few who are actively misleading others, but wishing for their death or anguish is unacceptable in my book, as is suggesting that anyone who is unvaccinated doesn’t deserve care. Joining the narrow-minded crusade against the unvaccinated while ignoring the huge systemic abuses is just carrying water for the capitalist ruling class that is oppressing us all. Don’t do it.
[Hat tip to Kristine Mattis for consulting on this article]