Photo from Reuters.
By Terrance Turner
March 11, 2021
Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. (The WHO defines a pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.”) The term, meant to describe an infectious disease that has spread across a country and/or the world, soon became familiar parlance for Americans. But it wasn’t then.
In fact, many across the country were unaware of what the word even meant — much less the sweeping scope of death and disorder that it would cause across the globe. That lack of knowledge fed inaction, which became commonplace under the Trump administration. It was the lack of awareness or action that spurred the WHO to make a declaration in the first place.
“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” the WHO inspector general said on March 11, 2020. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.”
“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death,” the WHO chief said.
“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do,” the WHO chief said. “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus. This is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus.”
On Thursday, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the United States’ top expert on infectious diseases, cast a somber look back at the past 12 months. “It was exactly one year ago this morning that I said, ‘Things are going to get much worse before they get better,’” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “But I did not realize in my mind even anything close to more than a half a million people having died in this country.”
It was also one year ago today that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was canceled. For Houstonians like me, that was the first sign that something was truly wrong. It was the first-ever cancellation of an event that has gone on since 1931. But that event was just one of many to fall victim to the coronavirus.
This time last year, sports around the world came to a halt as a handful of elite athletes started to test positive for the virus. In the United States, over 20 million jobs vanished in just one month, the worst toll since the Great Depression. Food pantries have been swamped, schools have been disrupted, young people have grown anxious and depressed. American life expectancy fell by one year in the first half of 2020.
Now, a year later, the United States leads the world with total known cases and known deaths: The deaths of more than half a million people in the country have been linked to the virus, and more than 28 million people have been infected. Tonight, in remarks delivered live from the White House, President Joe Biden empathized with those Americans who have lost so much — their jobs, their houses, their loved ones.
“I know it’s been hard. I truly know. As I’ve told you before, I carry a card in my pocket with the number of Americans who have died from COVID to date. It’s on the back of my schedule. As of now, total deaths in America, 527,726. That’s more deaths than in World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and 9/11 combined.
“They were husbands, wives, sons and daughters, grandparents, friends, neighbors, young and old. They leave behind loved ones, unable to truly grieve or to heal, even to have a funeral. But I’m also thinking about everyone else who lost this past year to natural causes, by cruel fate of accident or other disease. They, too, died alone. They, too, leave behind loved ones who are hurting badly.”
“The things we used to do that always filled us with joy have become things we couldn’t do and broke our hearts. Too often, we’ve turned against one another. A mask, the easiest thing to do to save lives, sometimes it divides us. States pitted against one another instead of working with each other. Vicious hate crimes against Asian Americans who have been attacked, harassed, blamed, and scapegoated.
“At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, they’re on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives, and still, still, they are forced to live in fear for their lives, just walking down streets in America. It’s wrong, it’s un-American, and it must stop.
“Look, we know what we need to do to beat this virus. Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people. No function more important. We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No, it’s us. All of us. We, the people.”
Biden said that Americans thrive when we come together for a common purpose, when we work together to overcome this virus. That echoed notes struck by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “To move past this pandemic, we must resolutely face these challenges head on and fully embrace the innovations, the new partnerships, and the resilience of our communities that have emerged from this crisis,” Dr. Walensky said Thursday in a statement on the W.H.O. anniversary.
Those communities need help to move forward. And it finally appears that help is on the way. But only after bitter debate did pass a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which was signed into law by President Biden today.
Tonight, in his first prime-time address as president, Joe Biden addressed the bill’s many features. “And today, I signed into law the American Rescue Plan, an historic piece of legislation that delivers immediate relief to millions of people. It includes $1,400 in direct rescue checks, payments. That means a typical family of four earning about $110,000 will get checks for $5,600 deposited if they have direct deposit or in a check, a treasury check,” Biden said.
Biden had more good news for Americans in tonight’s speech.
I’m announcing that I will direct all states, tribes, and territories to make all adults, people 18 and over, eligible to be vaccinated no later than May 1. Let me say that again. All adult Americans will be eligible to get a vaccine no later than May 1. That’s much earlier than expected.
“And let me be clear. That doesn’t mean everyone’s going to have that shot immediately, but it means you’ll be able to get in line beginning May 1. Every adult will be eligible to get their shot. And to do this, we’re going to go from a million shots a day that I promised in December before I was sworn in, to maintaining, beating our current pace of 2 million shots a day, outpacing the rest of the world.”
Across the country, the seven-day average of daily new virus cases was 57,400 as of Wednesday — a decrease of 16 percent from two weeks earlier, according to a Times database, and a steep decline from the overwhelming crests earlier this year. But the number of new daily cases remains near the peak of last summer’s surge and is still too high for federal health officials, particularly given concerns about the spread of worrisome virus variants.
UPDATE (March 12, 2021): Today, in remarks that concluded at around 2:00 pm, the President followed up on previous comments in last night’s address. “Look, we know what we need to do to beat this virus. Tell the truth. Follow the scientists and the science. Work together. Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people,” he said last night. Today, Biden reiterated that point and emphasized the need for truth-telling.
Biden noted that many lawmakers — “especially the ones that have been around a hundred years like me” — know about the erosion of trust in American government. He spoke of the need for Americans to have faith and trust in the government. That, of course, requires truth-telling. “There’s nothing the American people can’t handle if you tell them the truth,” Biden said. To that end, he repeated the revelation that he plans to travel the country with Vice President Kamala Harris (and their spouses) in order to inform Americans of the ways that the COVID relief bill will help them.
But he will also be working to implement the plan, the president added. “The devil’s in the details,” Biden said today. “It’s one thing to pass the American Rescue Plan. It’s going to be another thing to implement it. It’s going to require fastidious oversight to make sure there’s no waste or fraud and the law does what it’s designed to do.”
Meanwhile, stimulus checks included as part of the COVID-19 relief bill are now hitting people’s accounts. KTRK reported today that some checks are arriving in bank accounts via direct deposit. Others may receive the $1400 as early as tomorrow. For those without direct deposit, the checks will be sent through the mail.