Like any good business, in politics you strive to construct a version of reality, or at least a reality that could be, that appeals to a significant-enough number of people. Former occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, was something of a marketing whiz when it came to selling voters on illusory versions of reality. In 2020, he came in hot with a fantasy narrative that described a pandemic-free world in which life could go on as normal. As appealing as it might have been to buy the notion that COVID-19 was a hoax (or real but overblown–the narrative was never entirely stable) and that there was therefore no need to disrupt our normal lives, a majority of Americans, at least in this instance, were wise enough to accept the truth–however harsh and bitter the truth might have been.
Set against Trump, Joe Biden, with his promise to deliver straight talk and transparency about the virus, was a warm welcome for the nearly 80 million Americans who voted for him. Finally, we were free from the morass of Trump’s manifold lies, free from his fantasy land.
Well, yes and no. The denialist fantasies that Trump created may no longer have influence in the White House, but the spirit of fantasy thinking doesn’t seem to have gone away.
Most potent among the Biden administration’s fantasy narratives is the irresistible hope that comes with the promise of vaccines. We know how the story goes: in the months ahead, vaccine supply steadily increases, more and more Americans get vaccinated, and as a result we get to enjoy a fairly normal summer (on July 4th, we’ll be able to celebrate independence from the virus, Joe Biden says). We have only to hold on for a little longer; then, Americans will more or less be in the clear.
As we amble into April, Biden’s vaccine optimism has not diminished; rather, it’s only increased as more people get their shot quicker than was originally forecasted. The American public is riding this wave of optimism right alongside the President–or at least, that’s what I think is suggested by the 75% approval rating Biden has received on his handling of the pandemic. In fact, given the explosive spring break we just saw, along with a more general letting down of our guards, I think it’s safe to say that the hope felt by the American people is even stronger than that which is evoked by the President’s public statements. It’s a hope that’s taken on the force of fantasy.
One could argue that the expectation that the U.S. will finally get a grip on the pandemic is not mere wishful thinking, that it’s grounded in reality–if one is using case numbers and the rate of vaccination as a barometer. But what I argue makes this hope a fantasy is its largely unspoken and patently absurd underlying premise: that in a global pandemic, the United States can somehow return to a state of near normalcy even when much of the rest of the world hasn’t yet.
Indeed, however hopeful the situation might look in the U.S. (recent threats of a fourth surge notwithstanding), other countries lag far behind America’s stunning rate of vaccination. What this means is pretty obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: it will take much longer than Americans currently expect to effectively eradicate COVID-19 the world over. According to some public health experts, the slow rate of global vaccination could mean that masking and social distancing will continue for years.
These worrying global trends run alongside the perception around the world that the United States is a vaccine hoarder. America’s vaccine nationalism came to light most clearly when the New York Times reported that the Biden administration was refusing to relinquish any of its stockpile of AstraZeneca shots for distribution in other countries. Since that report, the United States has agreed to share some doses to Mexico and Canada (we don’t much like the AstraZeneca vaccine anyway), but the “America First” logic of Biden’s vaccination program remains the same: the inoculation of all American adults takes priority over the needs of other countries.
Scholar Mihir Sharma offered a much needed critique of our country’s vaccine nationalism, arguing that hoarding vaccines would not only alienate America’s struggling allies and trading partners, but that doing so would also backfire on the United States: the longer the virus is able to circulate around the world, the more it is able to mutate, ultimately making it that much harder to finally eradicate.
This is a quandary that ordinary Americans and media pundits have a difficult time grappling with. The delusional notion that the U.S. can finally put a coda to this crisis, even if the rest of the world hasn’t, is a highly appealing one. It is especially attractive to a country that has, due to a series of bad decisions, been distinctly hard hit by the pandemic. But unless some extraordinary and highly immoral decisions are made in the future, I fear that this hope we Americans have of how the pandemic’s endgame will play out in our country is a fantasy that is only a few degrees more sophisticated than any of the fairy tales that Trump created. What’s more, if and when our hopes are shattered, we will be poorly positioned to confront the bitter truth because we will not have been preparing for its arrival.
As such, it might be better to come back to reality now before it forces itself upon us. We might, for example, want to have wider conversations about how prudent it is to vaccinate healthy American 20-somethings who work at home while more vulnerable groups in other countries still wait for their shot. Maybe we also need to remind ourselves that this fight, being a global one, is about saving as many lives as possible everywhere, and not just in our country. And maybe too we need to be reminded that, in a global pandemic, the ultimate goal is worldwide herd immunity, and not just national herd immunity.
Alright, maybe at this point, fatigued as we all are, that’s a sacrifice most Americans simply aren’t willing to make. So we continue to hoard vaccines, and the nation overcomes the virus while the rest of the world continues to struggle. Then what? How are Americans supposed to travel abroad when all the tourist hotspots remain crippled by the virus? How are citizens from other countries to travel to our now-open economy for work and play when they could potentially be bringing with them new variants of the virus for which we have no protection? Do we close our borders and restrict or suspend immigration and all travel in and out of the country? Under these conditions, America starts to look very much like Trump’s dark fantasy land again.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that our tacit acceptance of vaccine nationalism will produce all or some of these outcomes, but none of it is beyond the realm of possibility. As such, this is an issue that’s at least worth taking seriously. Dreaming about a hopeful future is understandable, probably even healthy in moderation; but if we float too long in the dream world, the reality we wake up to could very well be a living nightmare.
Featured image: Photo of COVID-19 vaccines taken U.S. Secretary of Defense – https://www.flickr.com/photos/secdef/50720831313/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97585337