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Joe Biden says the Covid pandemic is ‘over’. Is he right?

President’s comments on 60 Minutes draw concern from advocates for public health guidelines

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 21 September 2022 04:28 BST
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Joe and Jill Biden arrive at Westminster Abbey for Queen's funeral
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Joe Biden says the Covid-19 pandemic is finally over.

The president made his declaration on CBS’s 60 Minutes in an interview that aired over the weekend, as Mr Biden prepared to pay his respects to Queen Elizabeth II across the Atlantic.

"The pandemic is over," he said. "We still have a problem with Covid. We're still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one's wearing masks.”

More than two years since the virus first reached US shores, it seems like an announcement that should have come many months ago. But the US — like many other countries — still continues to grapple with reports of new cases of Covid transmission and deaths resulting from the virus, making the president’s claim dubious.

The question now appears to be evolving somewhat: When does the emergence and spread of a new virus cease qualifying as a “pandemic”, if it’s unclear whether the virus’s spread will ever be completely preventable?

Vaccines against the virus and its subsequent variants — Omicron, Delta, et cetera — have thus far proven ineffective at preventing contraction or transmission of the disease, while remaining the single best defence against its deadliest symptoms. Wide swaths of the population, including whole communities, remain unvaccinated and resistant to the idea, however, meaning that there is still ample ground across America for Covid to spread and cause serious harm.

If you follow the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) definition of a pandemic, it seems unlikely that the US will escape the label any time soon. The agency defines the term as “an epidemic of disease, or other health condition, that occurs over a widespread area (multiple countries or continents) and usually affects a sizeable part of the population.”

There’s no doubt that Covid is still occurring “over a widespread area” and affecting “a sizeable part of the population”. On average, hundreds of Americans are still dying to the virus every single day, while spikes earlier this year and late in 2021 saw those numbers jump into the thousands. And Covid continues to ensnare communities and economies around the world, resulting in problems in the global supply chain; just earlier this month, Chinese officials instituted a Covid lockdown on Chengdu, one of western China’s largest cities, and similar restrictions remain in place in two other cities.

No signs indicate that deaths in the US will drop to zero, or at least a far lower number. There’s also no indication that global supply chain disruptions resulting directly from spread of the virus will abate any time soon. So it’s unclear whether the president truly believes the pandemic is over, or whether he’s trying to do something else – redefine the term entirely.

Notably, the president’s only piece of evidence for declaring the pandemic “over” came in the form of noting that many Americans have abandoned public health measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing in favour of relying on the protection afforded by vaccines — or in many cases their own immune systems. But a vocal segment of the population continues to decry such declarations, calling them a slap in the face to people whose lives remain deeply affected by the pandemic itself or “Long Covid”, a term for what the Centers for Disease Control refer to as symptoms of Covid that linger months or years after infection.

Many vulnerable Americans continue to be isolated from society as a result of the virus, however, and may indeed feel left behind by the president’s insistence.

Their advocates gathered outside of the White House on Monday and picketed the president’s residence to demand help for Americans with lingering Covid symptoms.

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