Even as America topped a million coronavirus deaths on Monday, congressional Republicans continued playing games with vaccine funding, holding it up over an unrelated immigration debate. The same short-sighted politics are also preventing the U.S. from pledging funding to an international effort that would ultimately help prevent resurgences here. These are just the latest chapters in the sad history of how pandemic politicization has, at almost every juncture, made the nation’s most devastating health crisis in a century worse than it had to be.
It’s easy to become jaded tossing around such numbers, but 1 million American deaths in 2½ years should continue to shock. That’s more Americans than died in the Spanish flu epidemic of a century ago, more than the four-decade total of the AIDS epidemic, more than were killed in all the nation’s wars combined. Or, to put it on a more local scale, it’s as if the entire population of St. Louis County had been wiped out.
This deadly milestone might have been avoided if not for the early refusal by then-President Donald Trump to heed experts’ dire predictions and take it seriously. (He suggested in the early days that the coronavirus would disappear in a matter of days.) Or if the political right hadn’t politicized masks and social distancing. Or if so many elected Republicans hadn’t exploited the once-fringe anti-vaccination movement to win votes.
Trump deserves credit for his administration’s record-fast vaccine development, but his own political movement has hampered full deployment of that weapon. Well over a year after the rollout, more than 30% of Americans still aren’t fully vaccinated. It’s conceivable that better political leadership, especially from Trump and other prominent Republicans, might well have prevented this from ever becoming a seven-figure tragedy.
Even now, the U.S. is averaging about 300 coronavirus deaths daily, far less than at its peak but still a significant threat. New cases are on the rise, and the potential for a serious new variant remains. This thing isn’t over.
But you wouldn’t know that from the way congressional Republicans are playing politics with the Biden administration’s latest pandemic efforts. The administration sought $22.5 billion to continue its aggressive vaccination campaigns, but Republicans whittled that down to $10 billion in bipartisan talks. Now they are holding up even that funding as leverage against Biden’s move to end Title 42, a policy that makes it easier to expel migrants during health crises. (How telling that Republicans want to continue treating the pandemic as a crisis only in the context of immigration.)
So the administration is now eyeing a shoestring-budget approach going forward, potentially rationing vaccines to only the most high-risk groups instead of continuing to aim at full vaccination coverage. Should that enable another surge, adding to these million deaths, Republicans can add it to their pandemic legacy.