After being sworn in as president of the United States on Wednesday, before a sparse, spaced-out crowd and a mall filled out with American flags instead of people, Joe Biden will sign an executive order requiring everyone to wear masks and social distance on federal property.
It’s a small step in the scheme of the pandemic, one that should have been taken back in the spring. But for nearly a year, we have weathered the coronavirus under leadership that actively mocked the use of masks in spite of a consensus among public health experts that they are a crucial, effective tool for keeping people safe. I’ve typed out sentences like that so many times over the course of the past several months that the former president’s disdain for basic safety measures has became almost boring, despite its profound and distressing absurdity. Even imagining that the incoming president might ask folks to wear masks in his new home felt novel, let alone that he will take steps to encourage the rest of the country to do the same.
Biden is doing more than just leading by example. On Wednesday, the new president will do some other very basic things to fight the coronavirus. He will “take action to cease the previous Administration’s process of withdrawing from the World Health Organization,” with Anthony Fauci slated to speak at a meeting there later this week.* To encourage Americans in general to wear masks, he will launch a “100 Days Masking Challenge,” which, yes, sounds slightly hokey, but that is who Joe Biden is and frankly, it is great that the president is encouraging people to wear masks. He will start working with Congress on his coronavirus relief package, which includes more stimulus checks, higher unemployment insurance, and a ban on evicting renters until fall.
These are forward-looking actions, but just as importantly, Biden is centering the people who have died of the coronavirus, too. Tuesday night, he and Kamala Harris and their spouses visited the Washington Monument to remember the 400,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19; during his speech Wednesday, he had a moment of silence for them. Donald Trump, in contrast, once again talked about the pandemic in the past tense when he departed the White House this morning.
There’s still so much work left to do to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Biden, like all of us, will be stuck inside the consequences of a failed pandemic response for a while yet. But part of what’s been so exhausting about this is the simple fact that the now-ex-president constantly framed the pandemic as not that big of deal, and also something he had an excellent handle on. Wearing a mask is not fun. It needs to be a group effort. It was tough to be reminded constantly that people in power were against it, against distancing, against making all the tedious sacrifices that experts are advising we all make.
I’ve had the sensation throughout the pandemic that the only way to stay safe is to endlessly batten down the way I live: that I and my small bubble are pretty much alone in our responsibility for our health, because the virus is running rampant and there is just no one trying to stop it. I know realistically that many, many people were, and are, and that the efforts of so many people in public health have helped make things less awful. But with the president botching things so badly at so many levels, it was easy to feel like coping with the coronavirus was a personal endeavor, not a national project in which we were all engaged. It would be naïve to think that we’re all on the same page, now, as a country, with respect to this awful biological phenomenon—naïve to think that it will not still be exhausting. Officials will still mess up, they’ll still do things that are a little iffy COVID-safety-wise, like hug people on TV. But it feels like a relief to know that the president is finally going to try.
Correction, Jan. 20, 2021: This post originally misspelled Anthony Fauci’s last name.