The coronavirus vaccines were supposed to hail the hopeful end of 2020 much like Apollo 8′s beautiful achievement of orbiting the moon offered America an upbeat grand finale to 1968′s awful drumbeat of war, assassination and rioting. vaccIt’s been three weeks now since the first FedEx shipments of the Pfizer vaccine from a Michigan warehouse inspired OJ’s white Bronco-style coverage on cable TV. And while the number of doses of the two FDA-approved treatments delivered – more than 13 million by last weekend, according to the federal government – so far has been somewhat disappointing, the delays in actually jabbing Americans with these doses are quickly becoming unconscionable.
The number of people getting their first dose is just 4.2 million, or less than a third of the doses that have been delivered.
In Fort Myers, Fla., 74-year-old Mina Bobel and her husband dragged themselves out of bed at 2 am to join a line of 300 fellow seniors, armed with blankets against the January chill, to wait what proved to be eight hours to get her shot. A video in Tullahoma, Tenn., Showed elderly residents leaning on their walkers in heavy winter coats waiting to get inside a vaccination center, while news of a free city clinic in Houston able to handle 750 shots a day caused the phone system to crash from tens of thousands of callers.
What’s gone wrong? As Ashish K. Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, noted Sunday in a Washington Post op-ed, the only thing that seems crystal clear is that nobody is in charge. As Washington dithered on additional coronavirus relief over the course of 2020, one of its failures was boosting the paltry funds made available to the states to handle the vaccine rollout
The United States is failing at the task of administering doses for the same reason it didn’t know how to create the testing-and-tracing regimes that have largely worked across Asia, or avoid the embarrassing shortages of protective gear that had some nurses wearing trash bags. This country has been waging war on the very concept of good government for 40 years, and public health has been in the front trench taking World War I-level casualties.
The president who created this mess was Ronald Reagan, who assured a similarly anxious nation upon taking office in 1981 that “(i) n this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem – government is the problem” and then put a lack of money where his mouth was. The early years of Reagan’s presidency saw a budget cut of 25% for the Department of Health and Human Services and, with that, the elimination of vital public health programs.
The Reagan-era cuts contributed to the closure of 250 community health centers and about 600 rural and big-city hospitals. It will be important for Joe Biden to use his inaugural address to remind America – in some ways for the first time since 1933 – that you can sometimes ask what your country can do for you, and that in the present crisis, government has a critical role in any solution. Not a bloated or overreaching government, but a good government of the people, by the people and for the people – one that realizes that it will take a village and not rugged individualism to defeat the virus.
Because there are millions of citizens – some of them shivering with their walkers, or jamming phone lines desperate for information – who want nothing more than a shot in the arm as they finally hear those nine nearly forgotten words: “I’m from the government , and I’m here to help. ”
Will Bunch is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. © 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.