American Discourse on the Fight against the Pandemic

As the delta variant continues to spread in the U.S., the country’s cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has exceeded 40 million, with more than 670,000 total deaths. The data casts doubt on the U.S. government’s true ability to combat the pandemic. With midterm elections to be held for the U.S. Congress in 2022, and the challenges of both the pandemic and the dramatic disaster response induced by the hasty evacuation from Afghanistan, U.S. government officials have begun to find alternative ways to resolve the crisis.

In this context, the Washington-based website Politico recently published an interview with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in which Murthy offered a new option that would have an impact on the public’s understanding and common sense: adjusting the criteria for determining the success of the fight against the pandemic and seeing the good side of the information in the news. According to Murthy, “It is really important that we convey that success does not equal no cases. Success looks like very few people in the hospital and very few dying.”

Among the many officials in the Biden administration, Murthy, 44, is a relatively unique presence. Murthy once wrote, “For the grandson of a poor farmer from India to be asked by the President to look out for the health of an entire nation was a humbling and uniquely American story. I will always be grateful to our country for welcoming my immigrant family nearly 40 years ago and giving me this opportunity to serve.” Clearly, after understanding his highly individualized cultural and family backgrounds, Murthy’s thoughts on the markers of success in fighting the pandemic may seem unexpected, but they make sense.

From Murthy’s entire interview, we can clearly see the various dilemmas currently facing the U.S. in the fight against the pandemic: the risk of the mutated virus itself, the increasingly torn perception of the American public, the lack of capacity of health agencies to deal with public health issues despite a developed health care system, the absence of officials willing to take clear responsibility, the political divide between the two parties, the delicate relationship between the federal and state governments and so on. But when it comes to solutions, it remains an embarrassing and lamentable two-handed affair. In a sense, the failure to fight the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the absurdity of the U.S. military’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan: The strategy is clear, the knowledge base is vast and the hardware and software resources and conditions are top-notch globally, but the execution borders on magical realism.

The fight against the pandemic is a public policy issue that requires effective government action and a central role. But now the fight against the pandemic in the United States, from the governmental level, has begun to become a discourse based on rhetorical skills and abilities, and has even opened up creative minds to modify the “criteria” of what it means to be successful in the fight against the pandemic.

This trend of change would be a disaster for the United States. Objectively, the end result of this evolutionary trend would be that the American population would be left to battle the virus repeatedly with a limited vaccine barrier, accepting a constant screening rate of about 2% lethality until sufficient social distancing is implemented to interrupt transmission through this brutal survival cull.

In a speech at the White House on Sept. 9, Biden said he had signed an executive order requiring all federal workers to be vaccinated. We will have to wait and see how effective the new measures are.

The author is director of the Center for Cyberspace Governance Studies at Fudan University.

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