It seems like COVID is infecting everyone these days, and our politicians are no exception. After returning from a trip to the Middle East and making a short trip to Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts this week, the White House announced that President Joe Biden had tested positive for COVID.
In their announcement, the White House said that the president was experiencing mild symptoms and that they were following guidelines for positive cases that exceeded what the Centers for Disease Control recommends. While it is good the White House is isolating the president, it raises the question: why wasn’t he following public health guidance in the first place?
As the BA.5 variant spreads across the United States, the official recommendation from the White House, released on July 12th, is that people should consider masking in crowded, indoor public spaces. A quick glance of the president’s Twitter account reveals many pictures of him over the past few weeks—well, indoors, without a mask. He’s hanging out with world leaders in the middle east, meeting with religious figures, shaking hands with Holocaust survivors. There are, in fact, no recent pictures of Biden masking on his social media accounts. An update from Thursday morning shows a COVID-positive Biden, barefaced.
Of course, it is rare to find an image of any politician who is wearing a mask in indoor public settings right now. Across party lines, politicians are showing the country that they have “returned to normal,” even as cases skyrocket. Currently, between 300-400 people are dying of COVID every day. The risk is greatest to those who are both over 65 years old and have not received a booster shot of a coronavirus vaccine. According to the New York Times, 36 percent of people over 65 have not been boosted—that’s a lot of people without sufficient protection. And then of course there’s the risk of long COVID.
Perhaps Biden is not personally worried about his prospects, as someone with access to much better healthcare than most Americans, who has himself been boosted. Maybe he’s been hanging out in venues with testing protocols and ventilation standards in place that mitigate the risk. It’s also possible he’s simply been taking his mask off quickly, for the sake of photo ops.
Regardless, Biden should be much more careful than the average person in the first place. He sees many more different people in the span of a week than a regular person does, with legislative sessions, speeches, public appearances, trips internationally and across the country. One infection of one politician could potentially have a big ripple effect, compared to an infection in an average person. Then there’s the fact that he is elderly, and has a pretty important gig to keep showing up to—what happens if his illness leaves him unable to do his job properly? Senator Tim Kaine is still experiencing symptoms of long COVID nearly two years after his initial infection.
But also: politicians are public figures. They help set the tone of whether or not the country takes something seriously, and are by definition supposed to look beyond themselves. Even those of us who have remained cautious and careful about masking will concede that none of this is fun. If you’re less inclined to wear a mask and you don’t see the President, an elderly man, wearing one in indoor settings, or outside while COVID positive…well, why should you feel like you have to wear a mask? Politicians often point to a public that won’t comply with or support mask mandates. This point is iffy: a recent poll shows 55 percent of Americans against mandates, and 44 percent in favor of them. Regardless, public opinion does not stop those in charge from setting an example of good public health behavior (unless of course, your goal is to look popular more so than it is to do the right thing). There are no laws or recommendations that need to change for the president to wear a mask.
When the public is fatigued with measures, politicians can either remind people the pandemic is ongoing—or they can reinforce the idea that it’s not a big deal. This is where actions matter more than just words. The White House statement said one thing about masking. Biden’s face says something quite different.