Today is the last day of the federal Covid-19 public health emergency. The formal emergency declaration, mind you, not Covid itself — we will probably never be rid of Covid, and the virus is still killing and still mutating. Yet starting tomorrow, the pandemic is officially over in the United States, and with that comes some concrete shifts. Among them, Covid testing and vaccines will no longer be free, but instead billed to insurance, and much of the tracking and tracing system established over the past years will be dismantled. Other changes have already come in the last couple months, such as significant disenrollments from Medicaid after the expiration of some emergency provisions.
Different approaches to governing
Beyond these specific policy shifts, the broader point of inflection here has to do with a kind of approach to government. What I mean is that, for a brief period starting in March 2020, in the face of potential and then unfortunately realized mass loss of human health and life, the federal and most state and local governments switched gears toward a vision of government as it could be: an entity whose purpose was essentially to backstop social and market failures and use its vast powers to actively protect people.
This was more akin to a kind of New Deal project of governance, before the contemporary neoliberal consensus that began to really take hold under Reagan and was solidified throughout the Clinton years. Whereas pharmaceutical research is always to some extent publicly funded — the dirty secret that the pharma industry doesn’t want you to know is that most of its vaunted accomplishments are possible only through massive public grants and research — this time, the government openly took credit for facilitating the development and deployment of the Covid vaccines, and paid for them no questions asked.
As millions of people simultaneously lost jobs and faced extremely dire economic prospects, the federal government stepped in with a stimulus package and aid that, very uncharacteristically, was more generous as a proportion of GDP than that provided by most other developed countries in a kind of sudden, de facto social safety net. (The lightning rollout of course created its own problems, like massive defrauding of the Paycheck Protection Program by unscrupulous opportunists.) Not to say everyone was on board, obviously, as some state governments and federal legislators were quick to call for a so-called return to normalcy as early as April 2020, but it’s undeniable that the pandemic forced a reevaluation of what government really is supposed to accomplish, by as right-wing an administration as Trump’s, no less.
Returning to the status quo
The results of these reimaginings are now often cited by those who question what exactly is so great about returning to the status quo. One of the most-discussed, for example, is how the expanded child tax credit alone slashed child poverty by about half. This lifting of the emergency declaration isn’t a snap back — it’s all happened rather gradually, with state and the federal government phasing out things like rent assistance and expanded unemployment — but it does mark the symbolic end of the era. That it was driven by a global catastrophe is ultimately incidental; we don’t need to have an emergency for the government to take this approach. That leaves two crucial questions now: to what extent will the Biden administration try to retain this ethos after the formal crisis is over, and to what extent the public, having had a taste for it and feeling itself now at the edge of a precipice again, clamor for it?
The end Title 42
One specific area worth mentioning where the Biden administration is carrying over its Covid strategy to the post-Covid world in a pretty bad way is immigration. Over three years of litigation and starts and stops, the so-called Title 42 policy — which used Covid as a pretext to expel asylum seekers at the border without further due process — has endured, much to the dismay of advocates. Now, it is ending along with the emergency, but that doesn’t mean that things are going back to normal processing.
On the contrary, yesterday the administration finalized a rule to make migrants who traveled through another country on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border without seeking asylum in that country first, which practically constitutes almost all non-Mexican asylum seekers, ineligible for asylum, a policy very similar to a Trump-era rule that was eventually struck down by the courts. The Biden administration has tried to draw a distinction by pointing to very limited exceptions to the rule, but on the whole, despite dire warnings of newly “open” borders from political opponents, it’s possible things might not really change that much at all for asylum seekers. If anything, they might be worse, as the expedited removal process that the new policy will use counts as a deportation for legal purposes, which carries much greater long-term consequences than an expulsion.
The administration has emphasized its efforts to create alternate pathways including humanitarian parole initiatives and revamping the refugee program, with new processing centers in Latin America to spearhead external processing, but none of that changes the fact that actually showing up at the border and petitioning for asylum will remain very, very difficult. This comes as state-level crackdowns on immigration keep ramping up, with the latest and most draconian being a new Florida law requiring employers to use an employment verification system, imposing steep fines for the hiring of undocumented workers, requiring hospitals using Medicaid to report patients’ immigration status, and providing more funds for migrant transfers like the now-notorious Martha’s Vineyard trick. In Texas, meanwhile, GOP lawmakers are pushing a bill that would create a sort of state-level border patrol, potentially in contravention of federal law and separation of powers.
Strict asylum rules remain while social safety nets disappear
All this is to say, some of the realities downstream of the Covid pandemic seem to be rather lasting, while others are less so. It’s worth asking why. Why does the pandemic-era approach to asylum seem to have been solidified as the new normal while the approach to the social safety net was a flash in the pan? Answering these questions requires deeper ruminations about the ultimate political projects of our leaders, beyond the talking points and the rhetoric, and it requires holding them to account, pinning them down, avoiding the obfuscations and feints.
Why is the expanded child tax credit not worth keeping? Why can’t the government just fully cover the cost of vaccinations — not just Covid vaccines, but every vaccine for viral infections that threaten public health? Why is it reasonable for access to asylum to be indefinitely curtailed? In the rough and tumble of electoral politics, sometimes it’s these basic questions that are lost in the fray.