Science

Why Joe Biden Was Wrong to Declare the Pandemic “Over”—and Why He Was Right

A Slate debate.

Biden holding onto the edge of a door, opening his mouth.
He’s showing COVID the door! SAUL LOEB/Getty Images

On Sunday night, in an interview with 60 Minutes, President Joe Biden said that the pandemic was “over.” Slate’s science editor Shannon Palus thought that this was a completely ridiculous thing to say! Slate’s executive editor Susan Matthews thought it was kind of a relief to hear. Who is right?

Shannon Palus: When I saw the quote going around social media, my initial reaction was, ugh, Joe “I believe in science” Biden has really forsaken science here. It was like Bush rolling out the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Presidents don’t get to say when things are over just because they are president! But I was really interested to hear that you had a different reaction.

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Susan Matthews: Yeah, I basically heard what he said and thought: Hm, savvy political move there, Joe. Not something I frequently think! First, let’s be clear about what he actually said: “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it. It’s—but the pandemic is over.” Yes, this is a very Biden-y pile of word salad. But second—and to your point—is Joe Biden the person with the power to declare the pandemic over? Of course not. (Then again, no one really is—though the person who does sort of have the authority to do this is the director of the World Health Organization, who has said the end is in sight.) And to me, what he is doing here is less about making a scientific assessment—though how to determine exactly when a pandemic ends is squishy anyway—and much more communicating to people that things are shifting. COVID is still a problem, as he acknowledges, but the acute phase of the pandemic is behind us. I agree with him!

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Shannon: I am with you that the full quote is better than the little soundbite—“pandemic! Over!” that rocketed around social media. In the clip, he’s walking around the Detroit Auto show, and kind of remarking on how things are “back.” I have never felt less like I’m watching an authority figure and more like I’m watching … some guy, walking around a car show, just kind of, chatting, describing the vibes.

I think in that sense it’s maybe a savvy political move? Biden is just like you—over this. You can get a beer with him; he’s not going to be all weird and make sure to get a table that’s outside. Which—I eat indoors all the time now, and have for a while. I do agree things have shifted. But I also think that they could shift back: Winter is coming; there could be a new variant.

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On a practical level, one argument I found very compelling is that saying that the pandemic is over could make it harder to secure funding from Congress for things like boosters and rapid tests. We’re already in a bad spot with that.

Susan: Yes, this certainly gets to the heart of it: Is Joe Biden just kind of talking off the cuff, or did his pronouncement mean anything? First, I was compelled by the New York Times’ reporting that reminded me that the relevant distinction for, say, the Department of Health and Human Services, isn’t whether we are in a pandemic, but whether we are in a public-health emergency. Which we still are, so funding-wise and logistics-wise, those things stay the same.

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But also, there’s a way in which I see this whole issue as something larger. You and I have both been extremely frustrated throughout the (ongoing?) pandemic about how so much of the responsibility for mitigating the risk associated with COVID-19 has been pushed onto individuals’ shoulders. The government has not done a great job here! And so to some extent, I think that the project is something somewhat broader: Right now, as a country, as ever, we have to decide how we want to help people with problems, and how much we want this to be collective, or how much we want people to be screwed and on their own. We have to do it with transmissible diseases and we have to do it with a whole host of other things, from how we access health care to how we deal with student debt. And I just think that there are a lot of areas where we need to make this choice, and that is totally outside of whether the name “pandemic” is still actively being used or not. In other words, COVID has joined a long list of pressing problems.

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To bring this down to the ground floor—the outrage about “the pandemic is over” has come from public health officials, sure. But another striking response was the people with long COVID and chronic fatigue who protested outside of the White House on Monday. I think that we should be helping those people more! But I am not entirely convinced that a country that has never had a vaccine requirement and hasn’t had mask requirements or adherence for quite some time is going to achieve any of the goals it has essentially failed at for two and half years by holding onto the label of “pandemic.” I think we need to approach the problem differently—with research and financial support. So though I don’t think the label is all that meaningful, I do think that if the vast majority of people are living their lives essentially as they used to and are comfortable with that risk, we need to talk honestly about what the next phase is. Because acting like it is 2020 just does not feel like a politically viable move anymore (not that it ever was in this country, honestly!).

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Shannon: Well, as Insider reports, Republicans are already seizing on the “pandemic is over” comments to try to undermine Biden’s student debt relief plan, which was put forth on the basis that we’re in a health emergency (which yes, is ongoing currently—though that designation is up for renewal soon) . But I take your point on it being to a large extent a label.

I want to imagine how it would have felt if Biden had said something a little bit different here: “The pandemic has shifted. COVID is still a big problem, but we’re in a different phase of the pandemic.” That would have felt accurate to me, and not so undermining of the truth, which is that the pandemic, squishy as that word may be, is still happening according to public health folks.

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For me, I think it’s less that the word has power itself, and more that discarding it is a symptom of something larger. I think about what it means to be helping people with long COVID more, who could really get that done, and honestly, it just feels kind of bleak! But I think that it will take a little bit of a political backbone to do it, and saying “Ah, we’re out of the pandemic” does not feel very backbone-y to me.

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One thing that continuing to use the word pandemic can effectively signal is that you’re still listening to the scientists. The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board called Eric Topol “one of America’s leading COVID scolds” for gently suggesting that Biden’s remarks were “magical thinking.” (Ironically, it’s pretty scoldy to call someone a scold.) I think that there are plenty of public health folks that are not being realistic about what they can expect people to do in the current climate and reality of the disease in terms of masking, and taking precautions. But I also think in this instance, Biden, a person in power, should not be undermining the public health folks!

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Susan: OK, well, here is where I think I need to pull this back to the entire idea of “I believe in science” at large, which I think has fueled some terrifically unproductive already-in-the-air partisanship throughout the pandemic.

Shannon: Yes, I think we can both agree that we got pretty sick of those yard signs. But go on.

Susan: Indeed. Anyway, I am not convinced that public health professionals are actually that uniform in their position that the pandemic is still ongoing (several public health officials who work for the government defended Biden’s comments, perhaps unsurprisingly). But nor do I think that public health professionals are the only scientists that matter here—and public health professionals themselves tend to take a much more realistic approach to plenty of other health issues, arguing for “meeting people where they are,” in order to reduce harm, which is both a social science concept and well, the goal. How to effectively communicate with the COVID-skeptical on everything from vaccines to masks has been so overlitigated that I cannot bear to do that again, but I think this gets to the crux of the issue: A majority of Americans are living their lives with minimal concern about the novel coronavirus.

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Case in point: I got my booster this week, and didn’t wear a mask into the CVS because I had forgotten to bring one. To me, that is indicative of where I am with the virus: I am taking it seriously (see: booster) but I am also OK enough with the risk that I am masking a lot less.

To maybe move us toward a conclusion—even if we can’t agree on Joe Biden’s turn of phrase, I will concede that I think it is terrible that 400 people are still dying of COVID every day in this country. But…I am also willing to say that I am not convinced that me wearing a mask all the time is the easiest thing that’s going to change that rate! As the L.A. Times reported, ”As of early July, unvaccinated people 50 and older were more than a dozen times more likely to die of COVID than vaccinated people of the same ages who had two or more boosters.” So I suppose I will conclude by saying: If keeping the term pandemic around would mean that more people got vaccinated and stayed up to date on their boosters, sure, why not. I’m just not convinced that’s how it will work.

Shannon: We need more structural support! And I agree with you: You being super, super careful about masking isn’t going to get us out of the ongoing pandemic.

Susan: Meet me back in the debate square when the WHO declares it over.

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