When Joe Biden is sworn-in as president of the United States, it will mark the beginning of a new era in the U.S. government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans will notice the difference on day one.
The inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building has already been planned as a scaled-down, socially distanced affair. There will be no debate about crowd size because the crowds simply won’t be there. As early as mid-December, the inaugural committee began urging Americans not to plan to travel to Washington for the event, and to instead watch the transfer of power from the safety of their own homes.
The move is as symbolic as it is practical.
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The incoming Biden administration has sought to convey its belief in the science of pandemic safety, and is seeking to strike a stark contrast with outgoing President Donald Trump, who often flouted basic public health measures and continued to hold large gatherings during the worst days of the pandemic.
“We have a president who has not acknowledged the burden that this disease has had at all, other than his own brush with the virus and talking about how essentially easy it was for him to, quote, ‘get cured,’” says Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician and scholar at the Brookings Institution.
Biden began highlighting the differences during the campaign, when he held drive-in rallies, and regularly offered his sympathies to Americans who had lost a loved one to the virus.
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During that same period, Trump was promoting unproven cures like hydroxycloroquine, railing against lockdowns, and hosting tightly packed events where he and his supporters contracted the virus.
The Trump administration focused heavily on its vaccine development and distribution program known as Operation Warp Speed. At the same time, Trump largely ignored the ongoing realities of the pandemic, and actively worked to undermine efforts that would have slowed the spread of the virus in the months it took to inoculate Americans.
“We are now going to have to deal with the effects — economic health, mental health, all of it is now going to be a burden,” Patel says.
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Biden has sought to bridge the gap between the darkest days of the virus, and the day when most Americans are vaccinated.
The incoming president has said he would sign a face mask mandate on day one, and aim to distribute 100 million vaccine doses — enough for 50 million people — during his first 100 days in office.
“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” said Biden at a Dec. 11 event in Wilmington, Del., acknowledging the difficult situation he is about to inherit.
The best-laid plans of the new president will undoubtedly come up against the sharp divide amongst the American people.
Masks are still highly contentious, and shutdowns have been met with fierce resistance. Experts expect the Biden administration to communicate these measures as necessary in the short term, before a vaccine is widely available.
“Whether or not you thought this was a good idea a year ago, now that there is a vaccine on the horizon, what you do want to do is hold out until you can get it,” said Sherry Glied, dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
Biden has already taken a fundamentally different tone on the economy.
While Trump rallied against lockdown measures – tweeting for supporters to “LIBERATE!” states like Michigan — Biden has adopted the view that the economy cannot function normally, so long as the virus is still circulating widely.
“The Biden administration has been pretty clear that they see that the key to restarting the economy is to deal with the pandemic,” Glied says. “They don’t see these two things as being in conflict with each other.”
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The more notable pledge from the president-elect is that he will listen to the advice of scientists and public health experts — something Trump was often accused of ignoring.
In recent months, Trump has seemed to flirt with the idea of firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the country. Biden has named Fauci as his chief medical advisor on the pandemic.
All of it suggests a strategy focused on clear, more frequent communication to the American public about the pandemic and its realities. There too, Biden will break sharply with the Trump administration. Under Trump, the White House Coronavirus Task Force met less frequently, and faded from public view, as the pandemic reached its apex.
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