The challenge that Omicron has thrown to Joe Biden’s presidency comes when there seems to be a consensus among America-watchers that in Congressional elections due in November next year, the Democrats might lose one if not both houses.
Right now, in an average of US polls, Biden has an “approval” percentage of 42.6, which is pretty low, although claims that this is below Trump’s lowest during his presidency are incorrect. Trump’s average approval percentage was 36.4 in December 2017 and fell to just over 34 (his nadir) in January 2021 following the attack on the US Capitol.
While Congressional elections in 2022 will not affect Biden’s term in the White House, his handling of Covid will influence voting next year. At least as of now, Biden has said, there are to be no lockdowns or shutdowns. These have been ruled out as toxic and politically-risky steps. While surprised, and to some extent jolted, by Omicron, Americans remain eager to see the back of curbs that slowed down this hyper-active nation.
Nor have bans on travelling by the unvaccinated within the US been announced – these might produce more vaccinations, but would also incur resistance and unpopularity, unless clear evidence emerges of an Omicron wave threatening to overwhelm hospitals and ICUs.
Biden has declared that all travellers to the US from the rest of the world, including American citizens or permanent residents, will now need to show evidence of a Covid-negative test done within the 24-hour period before boarding their flights. Before Omicron, a test-result obtained within a 72-period sufficed. Travellers will also be required, after landing in the US, to do a Covid test within 24 hours of arrival.
The feasibility of enforcing these new pre-travel and post-travel rules is being widely questioned. At airports outside the US, one can at least picture airline staff denying boarding passes to people who do not produce a valid negative test result, although the pictures would not be pretty. But ensuring that American and non-American travellers who land from another country in an American airport undergo a Covid test within 24 hours is a feat more easily imagined, or ordered, than accomplished. The US is not a police state.
Nonetheless, commentators seem to agree that it is in the area of swift and inexpensive testing that practical steps against Omicron’s worrying uncertainties are likely to be seen. Whether or not these steps prove sufficiently effective is the question. A big factor will be the Biden administration’s ability to arrange the funding, as well as the formidable logistics, in a country with several tiers of governance, of the testing proposed.
Most people seem to be hoping – whether desperately, naively, or with some awareness of facts – that studies by medical scientists in the coming week or two will show Omicron to not be as contagious or severe as feared. Such a finding, if it comes, would rescue Biden and relieve the entire world.
“We don’t know” are words rarely uttered from the world’s most powerful podium, but that is the only meaning to be drawn from the string of statements about Omicron emanating so far from or on behalf of Biden. At any rate, it seems quite unlikely at this point that the US will show the world how Omicron should be addressed.
For the next several days, the ball is in the court of medical scientists in different countries who, in laboratories, hospitals, and elsewhere are examining the Omicron variant and studying the swiftness of its spread, the severity of its impact on people of different conditions and ages (including children), its ability to re-infect those who have recovered from Covid, and the results of combat between Omicron and the different vaccines.
Meanwhile, Covid, irrespective of variants, remains a provocative political issue in the US, where the total number of Covid deaths may have exceeded 800,000 and the accumulated number of Covid cases thus far is 49.8 million.
A finding in the much-respected Washington journal, The Hill, shows that in states which in 2020 heavily supported Trump, 25 out of 100,000 getting Covid have been dying, and in states where Biden received heavy support, the corresponding figure is 7.8 deaths.
The stark difference is explained by vaccination rates, which are dramatically poorer in Republican-run states. The usually unspoken, and maybe unrecognized, reasoning of the unvaccinated (most of them Trump-backers) is that 25 deaths of 100,000 infections is a small risk they’re prepared to pay for the “right” or the “freedom” not to be vaccinated.
To this may be joined a refusal to believe figures, even when these are supplied by an assiduously non-partisan journal like The Hill, as also a cocksureness that virile Americans will conquer a “foreign” virus even if they can’t dodge it. Although close to about 1,000 Americans are still dying every day from Covid, a small decline in the seven-day average of new Covid cases has been noticed, from 94,393 per day (the latest figure) to 86,413 per day in the previous week.
An inflationary trend, most noticeable in rising fuel prices, is not helping the Democrats, and improvement in employment numbers does not seem to be sufficiently impressive. Answers to some questions about jobs are not yet clear. Are people not going to work because daycare for children is expensive and a parent has to look after children? Or is it also because some have saved money from Covid relief, or are able for the time being to work from home?
Also currently of considerable interest to Americans are two very recent court judgments. In one, a young white American male called Kyle Rittenhouse, who as a 17-year-old had killed (a year ago) two men and injured a third with a high-power gun during a race-related demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was acquitted. Kyle’s claim that he had shot in self-defence was accepted by the jurors. Right after his acquittal, Kyle called on Trump, who warmly received the youngster.
In the other judgment, a 12-person jury in which 11 were white and only one was Black, found three white men guilty of murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American, while he was jogging in February 2020 in a town called Brunswick in Georgia, a state in America’s deep south. While juries and judges are expected to be above race (or caste, creed, and gender), when they actually are courageous and impartial, spirits are lifted.
In any case, race, guns and Covid – the last in its Omicron incarnation – remain live issues in the US.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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