Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
California Governor Gavin Newsom broke new ground by announcing Thursday that his state would be the first to treat Covid-19 as an endemic risk. Though the word “endemic” doesn’t mean much to most Americans, it marks an important shift in pandemic strategy.
“We are moving past the crisis phase into a phase where we will work to live with this virus,” Newsom said.
This change turns the attention of public policy toward prevention and containment. Rather than lockdowns and mask mandates, the “SMARTER Plan,” as Newsom has called it, adopts a philosophy of government flexibility and adaptability. The hope is that Californians can move forward with their lives – attending school, going to work, enjoying social and civic settings – but do so while prepared to aggressively tackle new outbreaks of the virus when they occur. This means putting in places measures that include the storage of about 75 million masks, continuing to raise vaccination rates, prioritizing public information campaigns to combat disinformation, the continuation of testing, monitoring wastewater and boosting the number of medical workers available to hospitals.
The path that California is taking should be the wave of the near future. Several other countries have already begun to take this approach – including Spain, France and Britain.
It is a vital step. Politically, this plan allows leaders to move away from the unconstructive debates that have framed our handling of Covid-19. Politicians have vacillated between the idea of total shutdowns, total openings and a middle ground of ad-hoc responses each time a new variant emerges. And, as we will inevitably see, new variants will continue to emerge.
Just as they have in the past, our policies for addressing Covid-19 into the future must begin with science. The expertise of doctors and researchers should continue to be the foundation for how we approach this deadly virus that has ravaged our nation, and the globe, since late 2019. But in formulating policy, politicians can’t ignore other pressures as well. Economies need to function and civil society needs to thrive, while individuals and families need to be able to live their lives – from seeing family to attending school to gathering for meals and cultural events.
As we enter another year in which the virus is very much part of our lives, the endemic framework is the only viable path forward. There has been a group of medical experts, including bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who have been pushing the administration to adopt a bold national plan. “Without a strategic plan for the ‘new normal’ with endemic Covid-19, more people in the US will unnecessarily experience morbidity and mortality, health inequities will widen, and trillions will be lost from the US economy,” Emanuel wrote in early January, along with other top public health voices.
Akin to a Marshall Plan for public health, the idea is to vastly increase the kinds of federal public health investments the government makes, like those being put in place in California. Emanuel and his colleagues, who were on Biden’s transition team, became frustrated that the President wasn’t moving forward with these ideas, and released their strategy via the media.
Biden has an opportunity to take heed of these experts’ advice and bring Newsom’s “SMARTER Plan” to a national level. During his State of the Union Address on March 1, Biden must return to the issue that has defined the start of his presidency – aggressively and effectively tackling the pandemic so that it no longer dominates and destroys our lives. Early in his term, the President found much success with the American Rescue Plan to bolster the economy. Now, as he struggles with sagging approval ratings and several major policy challenges, from Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine to growing inflationary pressures, he can seize the moment to address how to move forward from the crisis that matters most in Americans’ everyday lives. Even some of the other problems he faces, such as inflation, could be addressed by better Covid-19 policies that keep our labor force healthy and ensure that supply chains are running smoothly.
Though Biden has suffered through a difficult few months, he still has a chance to regain his standing in the public eye. But to do so he must provide the nation with a better understanding and a more effective set of comprehensive policies that will allow us to live our lives almost like it’s 2019 again, crafted with the hard-headed realism that will allow the government to deal with a viral threat each time it flares in different parts of the country.
As president, he needs to help the country see what this can look like. “We do need more national, and more coherent, national guidance,” Emanuel has argued, “and I think that is an imperative. One of the things you hear from everybody now, it’s the communication around Covid has been less than optimal from the start … The public wants to know you’re not just freelancing it.”
Biden has, in the past, made lofty remarks about how we will get through these perilous times. He proclaimed in his inaugural address, “We must set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation. I promise you this: as the Bible says weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning. We will get through this, together.”
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While it is certainly not clear that we will get through this together, as our political divisions run much deeper than our ability to act as one, government policy can move our nation into a place where Covid-19 looks more like the flu than a raging World War. To reach this goal, we can’t depend on each state to take the right action on its own and we can’t keep hoping that the pandemic will just go away.
Instead, we need to learn to live with it. That means putting together a strong public health infrastructure that can support our needs while we all go back to the lives we have missed so dearly.