COVID-19

President Joe Biden to hold memorial as US nears 500,000 Covid deaths

Where Donald Trump suggested the death toll might reach 60,000 now experts fear it could rival those lost to the 1918 flu pandemic

Joe Biden is set to mark the latest tragic milestone of Covid deaths in the US on Monday night, with a candlelit commemoration and moment of silence for the 500,000 who will have lost their lives

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US PRESS GROUP

Joe Biden is set to mark the latest tragic milestone of Covid deaths in the US on Monday night, with a candlelit commemoration and moment of silence for the 500,000 who will have lost their lives. With the heart-wrenching landmark approaching, the White House is preparing for a sunset ceremony focused on those who have died and their grieving loved ones.

With his wife, Jill Biden, Vice-president Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, by his side, the president is expected to echo the commemoration held for Covid victims at the Lincoln Memorial the night before his inauguration.

He said then: “To heal we must remember.”

Such events implicitly underscore the vast gulf in approach and empathy levels between Biden and his predecessor in the Oval Office. Donald Trump rarely spoke about the hundreds of thousands who died on his watch. When he did it was usually to boast about his administration’s successes in fighting the pandemic.

Last April, Trump predicted that 60,000 people might die from the virus – a measure of how wrong he was, given the new tally.

That milestone was crossed later in April. Now a much closer landmark would be the 675,000 who died in the US during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a death toll that once seemed unthinkable from Covid-19 and yet is now glaringly on the horizon.

Seasoned medical experts who have waged battles with infectious diseases for decades expressed open dismay at the imminent surpassing of half a million deaths. Anthony Fauci, the public face of the US response to coronavirus who was sidelined by Trump but is Biden’s chief medical adviser, bluntly described the milestone as “terrible”.

As a sign of the jitters that continue to grip the country, Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, warned Americans that they might have to continue wearing masks into 2022.

Peter Hotez, a global health scientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, asked on Twitter: “How did we get to this awful place?” Answering his own question, he said one important factor had been an “anti-science disinformation campaign” under Trump that “downplayed the epidemic, said it was a hoax and discredited masks”.

Against so dark a backdrop, the Biden administration is moving steadily towards achieving its stated goal of 100m vaccinations within its first 100 days. Latest figures show that more than 60m doses of vaccine have been put in people’s arms, with some 13% of the US population having received one shot and almost 6% two.

The impact of the vaccination program is clearly visible, with signs the worst of the pandemic has passed. Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University showed an almost 30% decline in the weekly load of new cases in the US, the steepest week-on-week decline since the pandemic began.

But with the daily reported count of new cases still running at more than 55,000, and deaths at more than 1,000 a day, nobody is rushing to declare the health crisis over. New variants of the virus continue to cause anxiety, with at least seven identified within the US.

The most promising aspect of the current picture is the evident determination of the Biden administration to avoid the mistakes of the past. Where Trump sat back, passing the buck largely to states which followed a patchwork of different and often contradictory strategies, Biden has actively engaged the federal government in the distribution of vaccines.

The president has brought the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Fema, into the center of the operation with responsibility for coordinating vaccination efforts. He has instructed the federal response to make a top priority of opening vaccination centers in black, Latino and other minority communities where Covid has been most devastating yet vaccination levels have been disproportionately low.

The approach, which has led to federal support for vaccination sites in communities hit hard, is in stark contrast to the Trump model. As one Fema official told NBC News: “Anything Trump did, we’re doing the opposite.”

Despite the contrast in approaches, racial disparities continue to plague the US experience of Covid. Newly released data suggests Latino and black Americans are being vaccinated at rates substantially below those of white Americans, even though they have suffered the most severe health consequences of the pandemic.

As Sharrelle Barber, an epidemiologist who specializes in race and health inequities, put it: “500,000 souls in the US … Our shared humanity requires that we grieve, but also that we fight against the systems of oppression that created the avoidable and unjust deaths that we have witnessed.”

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