How the press manufactured consent for never-ending COVID reinfections
Continual reinfection was not the "new normal" Biden advertised. How did we get here?
Thanks to Joe Biden’s administration, measuring virus levels in sewer sheds is the closest approximation of accurate COVID case counts you’re going to find in the US. The below COVID all-time case estimates are derived from wastewater data, put together by infectious disease modeler JP Weiland. What do you see?
A little over two years ago, on November 16, 2021, CNBC reported on Dr. Fauci’s assessment of what successfully ‘living with the virus’ would look like: “Covid cases must fall below 10,000 a day for U.S. to get to 'degree of normality'”. He went on to say that truly getting the virus under control would probably mean no more than 3,300 cases a day- this would be a reasonable rate that wouldn’t create major disruptions to overall social functioning. He made this projection, notably, nearly a year after the initial vaccine rollout. As of December 18, 2023, the infectious disease modeler’s projection of new daily cases in the US? 964,184 new cases per day. This is, quite factually, not the ‘new normal’ anyone was promised.
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Why does it matter if new daily COVID cases are nearly one million instead of three thousand? For one, despite constant media headlines about COVID “becoming like the flu,” yet another new study this week found COVID to be 43% deadlier than flu. But to confine COVID outcomes to “death” or “you’re just fine” would be to co-sign another false media narrative: that the only poor outcome of COVID is death. Instead, Dr. Al-Aly’s study finds a myriad of follow-on health problems associated with COVID at a high rate. As WSWS reported:
over the 18-month period, COVID-19 was associated with “significant increased risk” in 64 of the 94 measured health outcomes that encompassed nearly every organ system in the human body…
As just one example of a measured health outcome, those with COVID-19 had a 2.4 times higher risk of heart attack in the first 30 days than those with the flu. This risk factor remained elevated throughout the 18-month period. Those who had COVID-19 also faced an increased risk of pulmonary embolism and many other potentially lethal conditions throughout the study period.
It’s difficult to fully catalogue the extent of the damage COVID can do to the heart, lung, kidneys, liver, brain, and immune system. Viral persistence- meaning chronic infection that carries unknown long-term risks- is now being documented and looking like a probable culprit for many cases of Long COVID. Earlier this year, Dr. Tedros of the WHO publicly stated, “An estimated 1 in 10 infections results in post #COVID19 condition, suggesting that hundreds of millions of people will need longer-term care.” Studies consistently find Long COVID prevalence at double-digit rates, generally ranging from 10-20%. Over a year ago- that is, tens of millions of infections ago- Brookings Institute estimated 16 million Americans living with Long COVID. Even more concerningly, a new Canadian study found that Long COVID risk increases with each infection. The figure below is from that study.
It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone could see this data- which finds the rate of Long COVID after 3 infections to be a whopping 38%- and not understand why “let it rip” is an unsustainable approach to COVID. But let me spell it out: people are catching COVID frequently, between 1-2 times a year. Each infection carries a high risk of long-term illness, which does not decrease, but compounds with reinfection. Immunity is short-term, and often circumvented by the fast pace of COVID variant evolution. Add these factors together: how do you run a society with a constantly, rapidly increasing subset of the population long-term ill? Frankly, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s not only a moral issue; yes, I believe it’s wrong to forcibly infect everyone with a vascular disease with unknown long-term health effects over and over again. But it’s also just practically unfeasible to operate a functional economy while rapidly disabling the workforce.
How did we get here? When we were first vaccinated, many of us in early 2021, was this the future we were promised? Constant reinfections that will surely disable many of us, but hopefully it won’t be you, so go about your day?
No, as a matter of fact. In 2021, we never would’ve accepted such a state of affairs. Let’s review the never-ending media spin that won’t stop spinning, that disorienting cascade of normalizing bullshit, or what I like to call: the Boiling Frogs timeline.
March 2021: VACCINES WILL END THE PANDEMIC
On March 29, 2021, on the Rachel Maddow show, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky describes how COVID-19 vaccines will end the pandemic:
…the other thing that we have all, I think, been waiting for in terms of vaccines is how much vaccinating everybody gets us closer to the end of there being a coronavirus epidemic in this country… It’s a piece of information that we have needed. Today we got it. We all know already if you get vaccinated, that vaccine will basically prevent you from getting sick with COVID, it will prevent you from going to the hospital with COVID symptoms, prevent you from dying with COVID. Great, good for you.
But there`s a scientific gray area about whether once you’re vaccinated you can still get infected…Well, today, the CDC reported new data that shows that under real world conditions…not only are the vaccines for those folks, thousands of them, keeping those people from getting sick from COVID themselves, those vaccines are also highly effective at preventing those people from getting infected, even with non-symptomatic infection. And if you are not infected, you can’t give it to anybody else.…. What this means is that we can get there with vaccines. We can end this thing…now we know that the vaccines work well enough that the virus stops with every vaccinated person.
A vaccinated person gets exposed to the virus. The virus does not infect them. The virus cannot then use that person to go anywhere else. It cannot use a vaccinated person as a host to get more people.
That means the vaccines will get us to the end of this.
The full context of this quote is important. Although the CDC did walk back some of her comments fairly quickly, it’s not fair to say that this is the CDC Director openly lying to the public, exactly. At the time- before unmitigated spread enabled the virus to mutate rapidly around the vaccines- there was a scientific lack of clarity around whether or not vaccinated people would become infected and spread COVID. Of course, this is where communicating a lack of clarity- and embracing the precautionary principle, i.e. acting as if the worst-case scenario were true- would’ve been critical. That unmitigated spread which led to rapid mutation, which in turn led to vaccine resistance? A direct result of this kind of messaging.
But we should also think about how the argument made within this statement- that vaccines alone would end the pandemic- was predicated on the as-yet-unproven and then later disproven assessment that vaccines could prevent transmission. Looking at the boiling-frog timeline, we need to examine how far the goalposts have moved since March 2021, and this is a great example. The CDC under the Biden administration explicitly stated that “ending the pandemic” would result from sterilizing immunity vaccines. When it turned out our vaccines weren’t sterilizing… let the great spin begin.
Summer 2021: “BREAKTHROUGH INFECTIONS ARE RARE”
7/26/2021: Symptomatic breakthrough COVID-19 infections rare, CDC data estimates --ABC News
9/7/2021: One in 5,000: The real chances of a breakthrough infection. - NYTimes
Within a few months it’s clear the vaccines aren’t sterilizing. Post-vaccine infections are called “breakthrough” and nearly always described as “rare” or “very rare”. These should be the first entries in our Manufactured Consent glossary.
Already, we start to see retconning in the media narrative. NBC describes the breakthrough cases as, not only ‘rare’ but ‘expected’. Yet months earlier, CDC Director Walensky had delighted on national TV that breakthrough cases were not expected. In fact, she explicitly stated that it was the lack of breakthrough infections itself that meant an end to the pandemic.
This is the first, slight narrative change Americans have to swallow. Ok, vaccines aren’t going to prevent every infection, 100% of the time. But as of summer 2021, they are going to prevent most infections. Most fully vaccinated people will never be infected with COVID-19; those who are infected will have a very mild case. The implications of the lack of sterilizing immunity- that vaccines alone can’t end the pandemic- aren’t named.
Keep in mind that this narrative shift and the following ones are not about bald-faced lying about the capabilities of the vaccines. They come from overly optimistic projections which exclude the less back-to-normal friendly possibilities from public view. Once the first breakthrough cases were catalogued, a serious interpretation would’ve been that NPIs like masks and clean air are more important than ever to slow the spread and halt the developing vaccine resistance of the virus. Instead, the most optimistic interpretation: breakthrough cases aren’t common yet, so that means they’re uncommon- was continually communicated as a certainty.
Fall 2021: DELTA. ONLY “HIGH RISK” PEOPLE SHOULD WORRY
The beginning of the Delta wave should’ve been the last stand for the “vaccine only” strategy. The Delta variant was highly mutated from the original virus; the more genetic dissimilarity, the more difficult it is for the body to recognize and produce antibodies, even if previously infected or vaccinated. Delta was the inevitable child of an uncontrolled, rapidly mutating virus and a non-sterilizing vaccine; we put evolutionary pressure on COVID to evolve around our defenses, so it did.
The Biden administration (and the world) had gambled on the vaccine-only strategy. Delta was us losing our bet. Unfortunately, telling people that COVID was not, in fact, ‘over’ would certainly have been political suicide for anyone who’d presided over these decisions; therefore, none of this was well-communicated to the public. Years later, much of the public is still confused by what variants are, how they resist vaccines, why they develop, and why mitigations are critical to slow viral evolution.
This fear of political consequences has led major health institutions and political actors around the world to correct their mistakes quietly, and the hushed nature of these corrections compounds the damage of the original mistake. Take the WHO’s initial, confident assessment that COVID was not airborne. Nearly three years after COVID was demonstrated to be fully airborne, there is still no public understanding of what airborne means, why surgical masks are suboptimal, what airborne infection control would look like in healthcare, or why “social distancing” is outdated guidance. There is little public awareness that the WHO’s initial assessment of COVID as “droplet” spread was incorrect, that this was a major error that carried major implications for every single intervention adopted during the so-called “lockdown” period. Frankly, we ran a droplet playbook on an airborne virus. The result- a failure of elimination- was inevitable.
During Delta, a major change is observable in the press narrative about COVID. Society is henceforth divided into two groups. One group is the group that is inevitably going to die or be harmed by COVID, the “vulnerable”. The other group, everyone else, does not need to worry.
Unlike the tenor of coverage during the Trump administration, which continually scolded people who dared to suggest that we should just let “the weak” die, major liberal press outlets now adopted this framing. Often, liberal outlets implied or explicitly stated that only unvaccinated people were at serious risk. This schism- between “vulnerable” people who are in danger and “normal” people who should ignore them, will be widened and cemented in the public view over the course of the next two years, but the type of people who fall into the “vulnerable” bucket continues to expand. The important thing is to get the main body of the public seeing those who will be harmed by COVID as an outgroup.
[It should be noted that liberals who subscribe to this worldview very rarely conceptualize themselves as a member of the “vulnerable,” even if they are statistically, due to age, size, or underlying conditions, very much a member.]
Unvaccinated States Feel Brunt of Delta-Led Covid Uptick - The New York Times
If you’re updating your glossary, it’s here we first begin to encounter the famous COVID “upticks.” Under Trump, we had COVID surges. But as daily COVID cases rise precipitously in that third large spike in our wastewater graph, large liberal news outlets adopt the word “uptick” and hang on to it for dear life through surge after surge.
Winter 2021-22: OMICRON AKA ‘THE MILD VARIANT’
If Delta was COVID’s shot across the bow, Omicron was its full-frontal assault. 150,000 people died in 8 weeks in the US, 40% of them vaccinated. Omicron was highly genetically different from Delta, with over 30 mutations on the spike protein. Beyond a doubt, COVID could not be controlled with vaccination; beyond a doubt, it continued to represent a significant threat to human health.
There could be no more hiding behind “rare” breakthroughs.
Enter the newest spin: COVID is mild now.
It may shock you to know that the claim that Omicron was significantly milder came from a single study in South Africa, which found outcomes to be less severe than during the Delta variant. The Delta variant, however, was more severe than the original virus, and later analysis found Omicron to be equivalent in severity to earlier strains when controlling for vaccination status. To take this single study and blow it up into a world-spanning, policy-driving, constantly-cited narrative would be, well, the height of irresponsibility. But that didn’t stop the New York Times’ Dave Leonhardt from going on a two-month bender of hopium-laced half-truths, informing Boomers (by their age alone, definitionally vulnerable) that COVID was now mild and concern about the virus was “irrational”.
Leonhardt’s “The Morning” Newsletter brought COVID updates directly to the inbox of millions of Americans that winter, so let’s see what they were hearing.
12/17/2021: “Morning: Omicron Threatens Red America”
Here we see this early dichotomy being reinforced, with a typical emphasis on how vulnerable groups maybe, probably, deserved to be harmed. Vaccine status is framed as the main determinant of poor outcomes; as stated above, 40% of Americans who went on to die during Omicron were vaccinated.
12/21/2021: “Omicron already accounts for about 75 percent of new cases in the U.S., the C.D.C. said yesterday, and experts expect cases to soar over the next month. The vast majority will be mild because the vast majority of Americans have some degree of immune protection.”
Again, over 150,000 Americans died in this wave in the following two months, nearly half of them vaccinated.
01/04/2022: “Children face more risk from car rides than Covid.”
In a typically hysterical missive about how horrible school closures are for children, Leonhardt continues to push the idea that this vascular virus, known to drastically increase the risk of heart problems and organ damage, responsible for high rates of disabling illness, and already demonstrated to damage the immune system, is harmless for kids. As of winter 2023, after repeated infections with the mild virus, one in three students are chronically absent in the US, and a recent review found that the risk of Long COVID in children after a single infection is 16%.
Out of control RSV, scarlet fever, pneumonia, Strep A, and more are all hallmarks of this “new normal” we’ve been kind enough to bequeath our kids. As we enter yet another winter of notably high illness, many news outlets fail to discuss COVID’s known immune system harms and instead spread the anti-vaxxer claim that wearing masks too much is what hurt kids (many of whom were not yet born in 2020). And as a result of their desperate framing of all this as merely a small case of the ol’ reopening fever, we’ve also had zero discussion of the very easy, very affordable interventions like HEPA filtration that would drastically reduce viral spread in schools.
01/05/2022: “The data is telling a consistent story: Omicron is significantly milder.”
Once again, this turned out to be completely untrue. In a piece titled “Has COVID become milder” experts via the BMJ assert bluntly, “the short answer is no.” But the bold-faced certainty and drumbeat repetition of this narrative planted it firmly in the minds of Americans. More observant readers might notice that throughout the months of the Omicron surge, Leonhardt continues to cite and link the same, single study- the one from South Africa- as his evidence for this world-shifting claim repeated ‘round the world. Outlets like the Times like to use language like “the data” to make their political convictions sound like facts. The data did not show any such thing.
This newsletter also marks another entry into the COVID minimizing glossary: “mild hospitalizations.”
01/14/2022: “For now, the available evidence suggests that Omicron is less threatening to a vaccinated person than a normal flu…. The Covid situation in the U.S. remains fairly grim, with overwhelmed hospitals and nearly 2,000 deaths a day…But the full picture is less grim than the current moment. Omicron appears to be in retreat, even if the official national data doesn’t yet reflect that reality. Omicron also appears to be mild in a vast majority of cases, especially for the vaccinated. This combination means that the U.S. may be only a few weeks away from the most encouraging Covid situation since early last summer, before the Delta variant emerged.”
Do you see how the “COVID situation” went from, in March 2021, being an assessment of how society was collectively protected long-term to being a measure of how fully vaccinated people without risk factors might fare in the near term?
01/25/2022: “Many Democrats say that they feel unsafe in their communities; are worried about getting sick from Covid; and believe the virus poses a significant risk to their children, parents and friends. Republicans are less worried about each of these issues. Who’s right? There is no one answer to that question, because different people have different attitudes toward risk.”
This paragraph really underscores the point at which nominally liberal outlets like the New York Times began subtly shaming people who accurately observed that many people were still in danger of significant harm from COVID infection, and that many long-term and follow-on effects of COVID had the potential to significantly damage quality of life for anyone infected. They state here that, of the two claims “the virus poses a significant risk” and “no it doesn’t”, there is no right answer, going on to explain that some people simply tolerate risk better than others. At this point, the mainstream narrative has officially adopted a Trump era claim: if you’re avoiding the virus, it’s not because you value collective care, it’s because you’re more scared.
The same newsletter goes on to call those who still worry about COVID- again, this is in the middle of one of the deadliest waves of the pandemic during which over two thousand Americans are dying daily- “irrational” because of “partisanship”.
SEPTEMBER 2022 - PRESENT: “THE PANDEMIC IS OVER”
Cases were consistently high throughout 2022, with two significant waves that peaked in July and January 2023. As of right now, we’re entering a massive winter surge spurred on by the immune-evasive JN.1 variant and lack of interest in vaccine boosters. Where the Biden administration’s pandemic strategy failed, the ideological work of the press succeeded in reshaping the public’s expectations about what the end of the pandemic would look like. We went from celebrating in March 2021 because we would not be infected, to celebrating the rarity of infection, to celebrating the mildness of infection, to celebrating that those harmed by COVID are ‘not us’.
The media, in order to prop up the incompetent Biden administration, successfully cast those who continue to be harmed as an out-group that exists outside the social contract of community care. The genius of this out-group is that it expands to accommodate all comers; you can be a mask-hating COVID-denialist in June; if you’ve got Long COVID by December, your days being featured as an expert or making policy decisions are over. Now you’re just another whiny patient who should get more exercise.
I’ve known government workers, political staffers, CNN and Washington Post employees who’ve entered the ranks of the out-group. Their choices are to continue pushing the “COVID is over narrative” at extreme risk to their health or be ostracized, potentially at the cost of their career.
The key to the success of the “new normal” narrative was in burying, denying, and othering Long COVID patients and post-COVID health effects, creating significant public doubt about whether Long COVID existed at all. Leftish outlets like The New Republic even got in on the game, publishing a long meandering “just asking questions” piece about whether tens of millions of patients reporting significant post-COVID health issues are suffering from psychological problems. Jacobin recently posited that Sweden’s notoriously cruel COVID response was the better pandemic approach; Sweden euthanized elderly people with COVID instead of treating them when their hospitals were overwhelmed.
The political project of normalizing transmitting COVID and casting basic, scientific mitigations as bad, weird, mean, stupid, and impossible is a fantastic coup for the right. It is the utter rejection of state responsibility for public welfare, paired with the complete shredding of an early-pandemic solidarity that bound those at risk (everyone) together. That solidarity was replaced with a poisonous “us vs them” worldview whereby those who have been and are harmed are weak, lying, lame, unlucky, unusual, uncool, rare, stupid, bad, mean, aggressive, psychologically disturbed and/or crazy. This schism seeps into the bloodstream of leftist organizing and splinters our coalition, shattering our incipient power as, unsurprisingly, the popularity of the fascists surges globally. I would argue it is the most thorough victory of the far-right in living memory, and it has embedded its eugenicist logic into the very foundation of public beliefs about health, disability, and who deserves safety.
Whereas HIV, malaria, TB and polio elimination are long-term acknowledged goals of public health, “elimination” became a dirty word in the COVID era. Despite having the technical know-how to drastically reduce airborne virus spread in indoor spaces- ventilation, filtration, and new tools like Far UVC- we do nothing and sneer that action is impossible and naive. This kneejerk violent reaction toward the mere suggestion of any preventative measures carries drastic implications for the future of public health generally, as does the now-mainstreamed anti-vaxxer claim that getting sick makes people healthy. (It doesn’t).
Generations of parents are being inculcated with the idea that making their children sick as often as possible will lead to a strong immune system and a healthy kid- tragically, this couldn’t be farther from the truth, and continual COVID reinfection carries myriad risks that will impact their kids’ long-term health. You don’t give a child cholera so that future cholera infections will be milder; you clean the water source. We already know what happens when children are not protected from infectious diseases. It’s what happened during all of human history prior to modern medicine.
The Biden era has normalized illness and demonized mitigations for the sake of “back to normal”. We now live in a country where educated liberals genuinely think it’s okay-and in fact good- that their kids are constantly ill (to be expected given the immune system-damaging nature of COVID). Where leftists argue that killing old people is less harmful than wearing masks. Where concern for community health is painted as cowardly and using the modern scientific tools we are lucky enough to have is portrayed as rude and stupid. And terribly, this liberal political project under Joe Biden has come down like a hammer on community solidarity, leaving “the vulnerable” squabbling with their mocking former comrades. It’s hard to overstate just how much damage the normalization of COVID has done to the very concepts of public health and community.
My beliefs throughout the pandemic have never changed: that vulnerable people deserve access to society, that mitigation must be prioritized, that great progress is possible with great effort, that community care is most critical in times of state abandonment. It’s hard to know where to go from here, at the nadir of a COVID response that vilifies and mocks any gesture toward prevention and care. But for those of us who are still here, education must start from a place of unpacking several years-worth of propaganda, while learning from disability justice activists who have reckoned with their social marginalization for decades.
Despite the multitude of falsehoods that continue to be poured over the heads of our comrades by outlets that can’t or won’t reckon with Biden’s failure, the truth has the advantage of being obvious, and patient. So we’ll continue to repeat it, until the people are ready to hear it: COVID is not mild. COVID is not harmless. COVID is not inevitable. COVID is not over. Stay safe out there.
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