Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
It’s starting to feel like March 2020 all over again. In New York City, news of rising infection rates, canceled Broadway performances, restaurant closures and a shift to online learning, carries a harrowing reminder of the pandemic’s early days. Long lines have once again formed outside testing centers. Anecdotally, it seems many people in New York know at least one person who has tested positive in the last few days.
The Covid variants are packing a major punch. In many parts of the country, we are witnessing a frightening surge of Covid-19 as we close out the year, with ominous signs from countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom, which are seeing the exponential growth of Omicron. Nearly two years into the pandemic, people are feeling an increasing sense of frustration and despair as the goal of controlling the novel coronavirus remains out of reach.
This moment is the biggest leadership test President Joe Biden has faced thus far. Having campaigned on the promise of tackling our public health crisis in more effective and efficient ways than his predecessor, Biden now needs to step up.
While there are certain things Biden cannot control, there are a few areas where it is imperative to show strong presidential leadership. Those include:
A reliance on science and clear communication: One of the biggest critiques of the Trump administration was that scientific expertise was often forced to take a back seat to politics. In the early days of the pandemic, Trump intentionally downplayed the severity of the situation and floated solutions for treating the virus that had little to no scientific basis. To be sure, the political pressure to work around science can be immense, and there may be strong and understandable drivers for leaders to skirt inconvenient or draconian rules. After all, we are social beings living under certain economic realities. But Biden can’t ignore the science, and he needs to convey, in a clear and calm manner, what we know about the spread and severity of Omicron, along with the tools at our disposal to curb it. Indeed, science is what will get us back to normal. Had more Americans listened to the clear scientific proof of vaccination, we would, by all indications, be better protected against the coming surge.
Pushing vaccines and booster shots: Vaccines remain the best defense against severe illness and death from Covid-19. Vaccines can save lives and help ease the pressure on health facilities already stretched thin. With sufficient global uptake, they can also help prevent future variants from emerging. Although Biden has made significant gains with the vaccine rollout, it’s not enough. He needs to hammer home the importance of getting boosters and continue exerting pressure in areas of the country that still have low rates of vaccinations, using both carrots and sticks to try moving those who are still unpersuaded. He will also need to devote more resources to deploying vaccines overseas.
Making testing more accessible: The United States’ rapid testing program is insufficient. While the administration has helped accelerate the approval process for rapid, at-home tests and made significant investments to ramp up the production, much more needs to be done. In countries such as Britain and Germany, rapid testing is easy, widespread and either cheap or free. In most of the US, at-home tests are still expensive and often difficult to come by. On November 28, New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufecki warned we need to ramp up testing to combat Omicron. Earlier this week, the Health and Human Services Department’s Testing and Diagnostic Working Group projected the US could reach its testing capacity by late January and February, according to Politico. The President must ensure at-home tests are easily accessible; if we can pay for weapons abroad, we can subsidize the costs of rapid testing kits for Americans at home.
Keeping things open, safely: For much of 2020, the debate about Covid revolved around the binary of locking down versus keeping businesses open. Each option, of course, has immense costs. Keeping businesses and institutions open during surges poses unacceptable risks to our physical well-being. Shutting things down, however, is devastating to the economy, family well-being, education and mental health. This is where strong political leadership, working in conjunction with science, can play a pivotal role in the coming months. Biden should work to strike a middle ground, allowing businesses and schools to open safely. This could involve a number of tools including masks, distancing, the use of outdoor space, frequent testing and vaccine requirements.
Hospitals and research: The federal government has the capacity to provide funding in ways no other institution can. Throughout American history, we have seen the payoff for this kind of investment. During the Cold War, government money helped fund our modern research universities, supporting students who wanted to attend and providing base grants for major discoveries. Computing and other technology would not have developed on the same timeline had it not been for massive government support. Most recently, the money the Trump administration devoted to vaccine development under Operation Warp Speed helped companies capitalize on huge technological and medical advances to produce effective vaccines in a short time span. Federal funds have also helped health care providers stay afloat over the past year.
This kind of massive and rapid investment is needed right now. In addition to accelerating the pace of research to detect new variants, more federal support for hospitals is essential. Since Omicron is better at evading two doses of the vaccine than previous variants, it will be essential hospitals have the resources to keep operating. This will be a decisive factor as we confront the coming surge.
Biden must do everything he can to figure out a battle plan to combat Omicron – and start acting now. It’s clear we are at a potential turning point, and if the situation is not handled effectively, we could find ourselves in the thick of another devastating season marred by death and illness. This is one moment when strong presidential leadership will play a big role in determining how we fare as a nation.