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The Never-Ending Covid Emergency

The political cost of seeming to be power-hungry ‘Covid scolds’ paled in comparison to the cost of giving that power up, and the Biden administration milked that power for all it was worth.

President Biden Delivers Remarks In Virginia On Lowering Health Costs
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Biden administration said Monday that it will let the Covid-19 public health emergency declaration expire in May. The state of exception that justified everything from an eviction moratorium to federal vaccine mandates will come to an end, and with it several pandemic-era initiatives that the declaration made possible, from free Covid tests to expanded Medicaid rolls.

For many Americans, the emergency has been over for at least a year and a half. The "Covid bonfires" of summer 2020 long ago moved indoors. Airplanes, buses, and trains are again packed to capacity. Most people, as the president admitted, no longer wear masks. Almost no one outside of a nursing home engages in "social distancing." The virus is still here, but "the pandemic" as a social event is over.


Why did the state of emergency persist for so long? In part, it did because progressives benefited from the sense of crisis it provided. The state of emergency gave both the legal powers and patina of crisis needed to transform the country by changing voting rules, purging political dissidents from the armed forces, and crippling church attendance. The political cost of seeming to be power-hungry "Covid scolds" paled in comparison to the cost of giving that power up, and the Biden administration milked that power for all it was worth.

The sense of emergency—not only the formal declaration, but the media's constant sense of panic about the virus—was also buoyed by portions of the progressive base for whom the collective neuroticism of the past three years was cathartic. One psychiatrist argued that during the pandemic, people with mental illness "finally felt understood and felt less stigma about their mental health journey," since "everyone was in it together!" Filmmaker Kelsey Darragh said that while 2020 was "horrible and tragic" it was a "much-needed reset," as she and others "got to just be gentle with ourselves." Scores of women on Twitter lamented that they didn't want to go back to normal as the world emerged from lockdown. To them, mask wearing, social distancing, and extreme risk aversion were features of pandemic life.

Covid hawkishness has become a signifier of progressive identity, and Covid neurotics are an integral part of the progressive base. A significant number of Twitter users and media personalities attacked the Biden administration from the left when it moderated on Covid policy, insisting that the virus is still raging even if the administration claims the pandemic is over. The New York Times's Wajahat Ali lamented last October that "People are shaking hands again," and asked "can we please let go of some traditions?" Just last month, the MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan asked Assistant Health Secretary Richard Levine whether Republicans had "beat[en] Democrats into submission on the issue of masking" and whether the Biden White House was "comfortable with" 400 Covid deaths a day. Tech columnist and Long Covid activist Taylor Lorenz said Monday that "We are nowhere near 'post pandemic'" as "thousands are dying a week and millions becoming disabled."

You could apply that logic to almost anything—more than 1,900 people die of heart disease every day, but we don't ban Big Macs or make people show CDC-issued proof of cardiovascular exercise. To the Covid hawks, it is not the prospect of death, but "moving on" that scares them most. They don't want to go back to shaking hands, meeting in person, or to pre-pandemic norms that didn't cater to their neuroses. They are not, by and large, motivated by preventing the spread of the virus. If they were, they would have reacted much differently to the tightly-packed protests-cum-riots that gripped the country after George Floyd's death. The very same people who defended limiting attendance at graveside funerals, making the elderly hug their relatives through plastic sheets, and shutting down small businesses and churches justified the protests in the name of public health.

As we assess what our leaders did in the name of what was, for a time, a real emergency, we should recall that the "Covid debate" was not really about Covid, but other things for which the virus served as a proxy. When we debated whether to follow CDC guidance, we were really debating the competence of of our expert class. When we quarreled over which businesses were "essential," we were really talking about whether smoking weed was better than going to church. When we traded data about case-fatality rates, we were really asking whether there was any public policy consideration greater than minimizing the risk of death. When we debated how best to respond to the pandemic, we weren't debating virology, but things much more foundational than that: religion, authority, and, what type of lives we want to lead.

The Biden administration has been on the wrong side of that debate since 2020. Ending the state of emergency in May will do nothing to change that.


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