COVID & Our ‘Manufactured Amnesia’

Issue 279

Steven Thrasher chronicled how AIDS disproportionately harmed marginal populations. Then he saw it happen again with COVID-19.

John Tarleton May 9, 2023

President Joe Biden originally planned to end the COVID-19 national emergency on May 11. However, he couldn’t wait. On April 10, behind closed doors, he signed a bipartisan congressional resolution ending the national emergency declared three years earlier at the onset of COVID. The declaration had empowered the federal government to take extraordinary actions to protect people’s health and economic security during a pandemic that has killed more than 1 ­million Americans. 

For historian Steven Thrasher, Biden’s haste embodies the political class’s desire to divest itself of any responsibility for a virus that still claims hundreds of lives per day and to erase from public memory what the federal government can do for people’s lives when it cares enough to act. He is the author of The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality and Disease Collide.

The Indypendent: What do you think is being lost amid all this socially-induced amnesia?

Steven Thrasher: The most important thing being lost is lives. The New York Times and Johns Hopkins University had the most comprehensive national accounts but have stopped counting for at least a month. But the last time there were national numbers published by Johns Hopkins, it was still almost 300 people a day, a little more than 2,000 a week or close to 10,000 a month.

Politically, from a left perspective, the other thing that was lost, that hurts people — but I think it also hurts the Democrats electorally — is that they had the opportunity to increase the floor going forward. They passed the $300 per month child tax credit that cut childhood poverty almost in half and they let it expire after one year, even though conservative parents also like having $300 per child in their hands. They also expanded Medicaid rolls by 15 million people during the emergency. Now those people are being kicked off. 

How did we get to this place?

I feel nostalgic for the summer of 2020. In New York City, we had gone from like 800 deaths per day to like 10 and everyone had a very precious sense of the sanctity of life. A lot of us spent that summer in parks in the evenings where we could safely be with our friends and were really thinking consciously about how much we valued connection to one another. I could leave my house and run into a Black Lives Matter bike protest without even looking for one. We could create something better than the old “normal” seemed within reach. And now, there’s just been a vicious, relentless move to recreate not only normal, as horrible as it was, but something that’s post-normal, because there are a million more dead people. It feels more draconian on a lot of fronts, because there’s just this willfully manufactured amnesia and almost a sadistic-seeming desire to refuse to learn any lessons from what’s happened in order to create a better future.

The idea of responding to the pandemic with collective care has been supplanted to a significant extent by a conservative counternarrative that seeks not only to discredit basic public-health practices as being tyrannical but to discredit the very idea that people have basic obligations to each other, even in a national emergency. 

This right-wing narrative is having a powerful revisionist effect on what the collective memory is remembering of what happened. Personally, I could never blame anyone for trying anything that was too drastic, given a million people died in the United States alone. As a historian of AIDS, I often talk about how it took the United States 40 years to get to the 700,000 deaths from that pandemic. It’s had such an enormous impact on my gay community and on people who are incarcerated and hemophiliacs and families that deal with addiction. There’s been so much death and mourning over 40 years. The U.S. went through that in 20 months to get to that level of death. To me, there could be no overreaction in trying to stop that level of death. 

Both the Democrats and Republicans have other priorities. They will always find money for war. They’ll always find money for police

The Democrats have let this go so much, and many more people have died under Joe Biden than Trump who didn’t have the vaccine, while Biden does. That’s not to say the vaccines don’t work. The problem, as we saw with AIDS, is that capitalism keeps people from getting the medications they need. 

Wait a minute. How much of the higher COVID death toll under Biden is due to people, many of them Trump supporters, who refused to wear masks or to be vaccinated? 

Not a huge amount. I think the government should have kept working with this population. When you allow the virus to just keep bouncing and bouncing and bouncing and bouncing, without any mitigation strategy to stop it from first moving, it’s going to kill lots and lots of people. And that’s exactly what’s happening. 

The vaccine is one part of the strategy, but we’re asking it to do too much work. I keep coming back to AIDS, because that’s what I know most. Once there were medications to treat HIV, doctors didn’t stop using gloves. We didn’t stop wearing condoms, or taking other HIV mitigation strategies. The medications were one and, ideally, the last line of defense.

Do you see the rapid unraveling of the government response to COVID being due in part to a fear that it posed an ideological threat to the idea that “big government” is bad and can never be trusted as an instrument for solving collective challenges?

I very much believe that. Both the Democrats and Republicans have other priorities. They will always find money for war. They’ll always find money for police. A lot of localities were given federal money with few strings attached. And rather than spend it on a collective good such as revamping every air system in every public school, they instead were encouraged by the Biden administration to spend that money on police. In Chicago, where I live, we had 38% of the city budget going to the police. Then, Mayor Lori Lightfoot took federal COVID money that was earmarked for the Chicago public schools and sent it to the police. 

And now the economic burden of the pandemic is being shifted almost entirely onto people with the ending of the public-health emergency. That’s an embrace of the same kind of neoliberalism that got us into this process.

Is there a deeper lesson we can learn from our encounter with this virus?

I write a chapter in my book about ­speciesism and how we can learn lessons from viruses that show us that we are sharing one collective body, whether we like it or not. This is something gay men have understood for decades. Our risk of HIV is not just about me and the person I’m having sex with. There’s this virus moving through the community. So you have a responsibility to other people, because the virus is just trying to replicate in as many bodies as it can. So you can’t just think about yourself, but, “how do I get the rate down for our entire body?” which will ultimately be better for me. If we can learn this lesson about our interconnectedness to each other and to the rest of the ­living world, it would serve us well in trying to deal with other ­challenges such as climate change.

The Viral Underclass: The Human Toll When Inequality & Disease Collide
By Steven Thrasher
Celadon Books, August 2022

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