The Front Lines of Omicron

This winter brings a gloomy sense of déjà vu to the intensive care unit in the Boston area where I work. Seriously ill patients with Covid-19 are increasingly occupying beds again. When I take part in Zoom calls with doctors from other hospitals to coordinate the regional “load balancing” of the intensive care beds – to exchange patients between facilities to avoid overloading – the tone is tense again.

They too seem to be bursting. It should be a lot better now compared to our last big climb a year ago. After all, we have highly effective vaccines. But in many ways, things feel worse, and not just because of Omicron.

In the past two years, meaningful political support has helped us survive the Covid pandemic. They were nowhere near enough, but they still provided a stronger and broader safety net than we had seen before the virus outbreak. It turns out that emergencies can focus our minds, calm our nerves, and encourage collaboration, nullifying Margaret Thatcher’s infamous claim that “there is no such thing as a society”. Both the transmission of the virus and our means of combating it have shown that we are connected. And what people need in emergencies, they also need throughout their lives.

We may not have received Medicare for All (or even Medicare for All Things Covid), but federal law covered coronavirus testing and treatment for the uninsured, as well as federally procured Covid vaccines that were made available free of charge all over the country. In a break with normal business operations, vendors were strictly prohibited from charging patients a cent for administration. Even private insurers waived co-payments and deductibles for Covid care (although they were still making record profits). New guidelines provided incentives for states to keep people on Medicaid lists and increased subsidies for private plans, which, despite massive job losses, led to a possible decline in the ranks of the uninsured. And the government spent trillions on improved unemployment insurance, child tax credits, incentive payments and student loan deferrals. These measures helped maintain the standard of living of most people, while keeping tens of millions of people safely out of work and even reducing the poverty rate remarkably.

But now we are facing a new burden. We have already experienced a mass death in just a month or so. The collective determination that led to a sharp rise in social spending during this crisis is giving way to the flimsy austerity policies to which we are used.

That means we’re facing Omicron with the expired federal eviction moratorium, expanded child tax credits on the chopping block, and robust unemployment insurance as a souvenir. Private insurers have reintroduced co-payments and deductibles for Covid care. PCR test lines enclose blocks in some places. Home rapid tests are not only priceless, they are sold out almost everywhere. Student loan payments will resume soon. Who needs such measures when, as some claim, we are faced with a pandemic of only the unvaccinated? The spirit of collectivity gives way to a harsh individualism normally only accepted by free market fanatics.


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