In 2018, while reporting on pandemic preparedness in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I heard many people joking about the fictional 15th article of the country’s constitution: Débrouillez-vous, or “Figure it out yourself.” It was a droll and weary acknowledgment that the government won’t save you, and you must make do with the resources you’ve got. The United States is now firmly in the débrouillez-vous era of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across the country, almost all government efforts to curtail the coronavirus have evaporated. Mask mandates have been lifted on public transit. Conservative lawmakers have hamstrung what public-health departments can do in emergencies. COVID funding remains stalled in Congress, jeopardizing supplies of tests, treatments, and vaccines. The White House and the CDC have framed COVID as a problem for individuals to act upon—but action is hard when cases and hospitalizations are underestimated, many testing sites have closed, and rose-tinted CDC guidelines downplay the coronavirus’s unchecked spread. Many policy makers have moved on: “We’re heading into the midterms, and I think there’s a real desire to show confidence that they’ve solved this,” Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and the editor at large for public health at Kaiser Health News, told me.
But COVID is far from solved. The coronavirus is still mutating. Even at one of the lowest death rates of the pandemic, it still claims the lives of hundreds of Americans daily, killing more than twice as many people as die, on average, in car accidents. Its costs are still disproportionately borne by millions of long-haulers; immunocompromised people; workers who still face unsafe working conditions; and Black, Latino, and Indigenous Americans, who are still dying at higher rates than white Americans. When Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiologist and physician at UC San Francisco, works with low-income, Black, and Latino communities in the Bay Area, their concerns are less about returning to normal and more about “how to keep themselves safe,” she told me. “Take it from a tuberculosis activist that you can lose political will, public attention, and scientific momentum and still have a disease that kills over a million people each year,” Mike Frick of the Treatment Action Group told me. “We’re seeing the TB-ification of COVID start.” [Continue reading…]