Opinion: This is no time to drop the ball on Covid-19

While the spending package includes funding for pandemic-related programs like a $140 million increase for the Strategic National Stockpile, these sums are not nearly enough. The White House warned that without adequate funding, the production of at-home rapid tests could slow, while monoclonal antibody drugs would run out by May. And in a letter notifying fellow Democrats that the package would be dropped on Wednesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the move “heartbreaking.”

The inability to rally support behind the package was the result of several factors. The White House initially requested $22.5 billion in pandemic aid. Facing resistance from Republicans, however, lawmakers agreed to trim the package down to $15.6 billion.

Republicans had also demanded that the package be financed by redirecting existing funds set aside for states, and the Biden administration identified roughly $7 billion in unspent funds from the American Rescue Plan. But this didn’t sit well with Democratic governors and members of congress who warned that their states were still anticipating the funds to recover from the lingering effects of the crisis, and the deal ultimately fell apart.

Bipartisan support has been hard to come by. While the Biden administration was able to find Republican votes for the $1.5 trillion spending bill that included $13.6 billion in assistance for Ukraine — an issue that the GOP is desperate to be on the right side of, after four years of former President Donald Trump’s praise for Putin — Republicans have maintained a united front in successfully sinking numerous Democratic priorities.

Given the urgency of the war in Ukraine and the need to avoid a government shutdown, Pelosi had little choice but to yank the pandemic aid from the spending bill.

As much as our nation’s elected officials are to blame for this lapse, we have been all too eager to move on from the Covid-19 pandemic without tackling underlying public health needs that will allow us to live with this as endemic. We are a nation with a short-attention span, with a media eco-system that has the tendency to quickly shift from one crisis to the next.

This was evident in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, when a groundswell of support to confront police brutality and racism produced only a limited policy response before the political winds shifted.

In recent weeks, a very real crisis unfolding overseas naturally turned our attention toward Europe. But the problem of Covid-19 has not disappeared. Will we be caught flat-footed yet again if a new and highly transmissible variant emerges?

And even if the virus is subsiding and becoming endemic, bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel and other medical experts have argued that we need to invest more heavily in vaccine technology, testing, therapeutics, ventilation systems and our public health infrastructure.

Given the logjam we see too often in Congress today, one would be forgiven for thinking the federal government is incapable of meeting the big challenges of the day. But history shows us otherwise and we should be able to fund a national Covid plan while also offering assistance to Ukraine.

As Omicron fades, it will be increasingly tempting to try to move on from the horrors of a pandemic that has taken more than 6 million lives worldwide.

But we can’t afford to think that way. Not only does the virus remain a real live threat — it has the potential to mutate and wreak havoc on the world once again. We have already lived through several of these cycles. The main reason that we have developed more of a capacity to live with Covid is because of the investments that we have made in vaccines, therapeutics, testing and tracking systems, and personal protective equipment like face masks to contain and diminish the threat posed by the disease.

Now isn’t the time to stop. The reason that we were so badly prepared when Covid hit was that we had not invested nearly enough in our public health infrastructure. With a president in office who was unwilling to follow the science, the weaknesses in our health system became apparent. Now that we finally have reached a much more stable situation with the pandemic, we can’t afford to drop the ball when we have all seen firsthand just how deadly and destructive the consequences can be.

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