Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Is the American vaccine rollout a success story?
Joe Biden is on the cusp of signing his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan into law, in advance of the 14 March deadline when the previous package of support runs out.
With the Senate split 50-50 and Kamala Harris breaking the stalemate, the White House has no choice but to keep every Democrat on side in any vote that progresses through the budgetary reconciliation process, in which only a simple majority is required.
The President’s plea for political unity has yet to bear fruit on either side of the political aisle. The divides that have split Washington appear just as entrenched as ever before; not a single Republican in the Senate voted to support the plan.
This meant that Senate Democrats were able to hold out for their own checklist of amendments. This situation emboldens Democrats to supply the de facto Opposition-In-Chief. Step forward, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose last-minute objection to the size and scope of the legislation required 11 hours of negotiation throughout the night to broker a deal.
The final bill’s headline measures include $400 billion in one-off payments of $1400 (quickly phased out for those with higher incomes), $300 a week in extended jobless benefits for the 9.5 million people made unemployed, and $350 billopn in aid to state and local governments. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bill today.
Swift passage is expected despite progressive Democrats, led by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, questioning whether they can support the legislation. Conservatives fear the package is too generous and wasteful, pointing to underlying economic and employment data. The US economy added a surprisingly high 379,000 jobs in February, with expectations for higher numbers ahead as bars and restaurants reopen and Americans begin to travel again.
Republicans are therefore expected to offer blanket opposition in the House. That makes Biden’s next task – selling the plan to red and blue states around the country – an uphill struggle.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink
Whilst Congress has horse-traded over the legislation, the Biden administration has kept one eye fixated on ramping up the nation’s best line of defence against the virus – vaccine production.
The President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act (DPA) last month has bolstered vaccine production and increased the supply of testing kits and PPE. Just as importantly, it prevents exports of certain materials needed to manufacture vaccinations, including gloves and filters.
The invocation of the DPA is not unique to this president; Donald Trump was often accused of not giving Covid the time, attention or respect it deserved, but he invoked the authorities of the DPA no fewer than 18 times to counter the pandemic. Biden’s invocation of the DPA and overarching Covid strategy meant the White House has brought forward the target date for vaccinating all Americans by two months to the end of May.
The expedited vaccination timeline was attributed to an agreement, brokered by the White House, between Johnson & Johnson and Merck. The traditional pharmaceutical competitors will now work together to expand the former’s vaccine production capabilities. By that measurement, the US vaccine rollout is a success story in parallel with our own, given the numbers on our shores suggest all those over 50 may now be vaccinated by the end of March — two weeks earlier than planned.
It is a sad reality but hardly surprising that attitudes to the vaccine have become deeply embossed along political lines. A poll this week found 67 per cent of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already been inoculated – good news, given that the World Health Organization said that 60-70% of a population must acquire resistance to the virus, either through infection or vaccination, to achieve herd immunity.
Look deeper, and partisanship becomes clear. 23 per cent of Republicans said they would “definitely” not get vaccinated, while another 21 per cent said they “probably” will not get the vaccine when it is made available to them.
So if the aim on both sides of the political divide is one nation under vaccination, Donald Trump holds a disproportionate amount of power in his hands. Given the strength of feeling the Republican base retains for their recently departed leader, a campaign led by the former president encouraging Americans (read: Republicans) to get the vaccine would be a hugely powerful tool in the fight against vaccine misinformation.
To his credit, at the recent CPAC conference, which confirmed Trump as the runaway leader for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, the former President said the word “vaccine” a dozen times. Trump continues to identify the vaccination program through the prism of his own administration’s success in getting Operation Warp Speed underway. He touted his defiance of the FDA and the expedited approval of two vaccines. “So everybody go get your shot”, he encouraged the audience. Those words were an island of sanity amidsr a sea of familiar grumblings about election malfeasance and political score-settling.
Warren Buffet has made a career out of his “never bet against America” mantra. In the fight against Covid, the United States has shown renewed strength. The traditional timescales for vaccine testing, approval and production have all been upended. Supply no longer looks to be an issue since the invocation of the DPA.
Biden and Trump deserve joint credit for the progress made so far. Until this point, the American vaccine program looks to have been a proud success story. But researching, approving and manufacturing vaccines for the masses is only as useful as the ability to get it into people’s arms. Failure to launch a major cross-party campaign encouraging vaccination uptake will render Operation Warp Speed (Trump) and the increased firepower of the federal government (Biden) moot. The onus now rests with the American people, and their willingness – or otherwise – to get the vaccine. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.