By Nikhila Natarajan
“Please, I implore you, wear a mask,” US president-elect Joe Biden pleaded with Americans in his first public remarks after his election victory. Biden is confronting a bitterly divided country where face coverings have become political statements in a culture war around notions of freedom and the liberty to blow raspberries during a pandemic.
Biden’s coronavirus task force, studded with scientists fired by Trump, is already talking up the psychology and marketing of public health messaging at an anxious time. Biden’s pick for chief of staff – Ron Klain – is a battle tested veteran of the 2014 Ebola response during Barack Obama’s presidency. Klain’s ascendancy marks the endgame of a uniquely Trumpian White House chaos.
The winter surge of the coronavirus is here and we know that every pandemic since the 18th century has come with a second wave which has always been deadlier the second time. Between US Election Day and now, the country has witnessed another 50 state blowout: More than 100,000 total daily coronavirus cases for 10 straight days. On November 11 alone, the US logged 144,000 cases. North Dakota has it so bad that it okayed COVID positive nurses to keep working.
The US is into its second (or third) wave, depending on which doctor you speak to, more than 242,000 Americans are dead and mobile morgues are being pressed into service because hospitals are running out of space for the dead. Donald Trump presided over this catastrophe and paid the price at the ballot box. The train wreck of Trump’s response to a killer virus is now Biden’s mess to clean up.
Biden, 77, has run his entire election campaign with the signature sterility of socially distanced white markings, drive in rallies and masks – all ridiculed often by Trump. “He could be speaking 200 feet away and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen,” Trump said through his campaign bullhorn, to wild cheers. Turns out, that didn’t help Trump’s re-election.
How might Biden go about repairing a catastrophe like no other? The first glimpses of how that might proceed are bubbling to the surface. We bring you five standout themes.
Empathy as leadership
In the Biden world, deference to medical experts or sickness is not akin to weakness – a constant if bewildering theme of the Donald Trump coronavirus response. Biden’s personal history is about emerging from the wreckage of personal tragedy and medical crises. Biden stuttered as a child, he lost his first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash, in 1972; he had two brain aneurysms in 1988; and lost his son Beau to brain cancer, in 2015. From the time Donald Trump began his movie length coronavirus briefings (abruptly halted when scientists began sucking up all the oxygen), his rhetoric on the virus has always spoken to metaphors of strength, immunity and miracle cures which are alien to the world of the sick, recovering or dying. Trump’s niece Mary Trump, a psychologist, explains that “weakness” was the greatest sin in the Trump family. It is why she thinks Trump saw wounded war veterans as “suckers” and “losers” – a slur that lost Trump millions of votes in the election. When COVID patient Trump lifted off in his Marine One helicopter for Walter Reed Medical center or went for a joy ride around the hospital while still contagious, he mistook his privilege (which runs on taxpayer money) for muscularity. The grotesque circus will be suddenly absent from the Biden coronavirus response. At the very minimum, a Biden administration’s coronavirus response will speak to the need for restorative calm, not quack cures. At its best, it might even renew America’s faith in its own depth of public health expertise, which helped it lead the global response to Ebola.
Masks as armour
Yes, Biden will call for a mask mandate – he already has – and success will depend on a patchwork formula ranging from emergent fears like rising cases and political gridlock in deep red Trump country. Although Republican led states loyal to Trump have let it rip, there are clear signs that when locals begin dying in large numbers, even Republican state governments are ready to issue mask mandates. It’s happened in reliably red Utah, it’s happening in Ohio too. Both are states that Trump won. Other bastions of Trumpism, like South Dakota, take their liberty to spit at people as a badge of honor. So yes, public communications on masking up will see a dramatic shift, but Trump’s red wall remains obstinate. Already, 72 million voted Trump despite his rhetoric about masks as an “optional” tool. An Associated Press analysis found that Trump won more than 9 in 10 (93 percent) of 376 counties with the highest number of new cases.
Straight talk, no bleach
Biden promised straight talk and sobriety on the lethal pandemic and respect for science. After months of hearing Trump tout “herd mentality” and “herd immunity”, America is being shown the mirror by the Biden task force: “Covid hell” and “lockdowns”. Biden has said time and again that Americans can take it on the chin, as against Trump’s claims that he held back information on the “deadly” virus from way back in January because he did not want to create a panic. The shift will be as much in due diligence as it is in terms of visual production. Obama’s chief photographer Pete Souza speaks to this aspect in his two hour documentary of the Obama years ‘The Way I See It’. When Obama (or Biden) were not the experts in charge, they wouldn’t grab the microphone. They would defer to the experts and the audience would see it in the visual vocabulary. In a Biden administration, a deference to science is already a visible story, in addition to the substance of it. In its first despatches, Biden’s task force explains its view of medicine as a system for delivering care, information, quality control and essential stockpiles – not as an on-off switch, but a “dial”.
From Teflon Trump to Teflon Fauci
After Teflon Trump exits the White House, we’re likely to see Dr. Anthony Fauci return to a leadership role not mangled daily by political barbs. Fauci has navigated ugly Trumpism with the remarkable cool that comes with having served six US presidents. Despite Trump calling Fauci and his ilk “idiots” and riling up supporters during chants of “Fire Fauci!”, Fauci remains a unifying force, even among Trump die-hards. More than 5 in 10 Trump voters approve of Fauci and that number is 9 in 10 among Biden voters. AP VoteCast polls 73 percent of voters nationwide approve of Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. For the first time in nine months, Fauci is nudging us gently in the direction of understated enthusiasm. “The cavalry is coming!” he told ABC’s Good Morning America on November 12, referring to the Pfizer vaccine that’s on the precipice of success. Fauci remains on the Trump team for now but has indicated, in public remarks, that he’s ready to jump ship.
Bureaucrats dumped by Trump are America’s hot hires on the Biden Harris team. Topping the fired-by-Trump list is Indian American Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former US surgeon general chucked out within four months of the Trump takeover in 2017. Another notable is Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert who filed a whistleblower complaint after being sidelined for his pushback against Trump’s unfounded claims around hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug. The task force co-chairs are Murthy, former Food Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. David Kessler and Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale University professor. Other than Murthy and Bright, Biden’s task force features many outspoken Trump critics who have been wringing their hands for months over America’s ongoing public health catastrophe: Dr. Atul Gawande, a renowned surgeon and author; Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist; Luciana Borio, a biodefense specialist; Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist at the National Institutes of Health; Dr. Celine Gounder; Dr. Julie Morita, a pediatric specialist; Loyce Pace, a global health maven; Dr. Robert Rodriguez, an emergency medicine specialist and Dr. Eric Goosby, an infectious disease expert with expertise in AIDS/HIV.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).