There are more questions than answers about the new Covid-19 variant known as Omicron first identified Thursday by South Africa’s health minister. Still, with the World Health Organization announcing Friday Omicron is a “variant of concern” and vaccine manufacturer Moderna adding the variant poses “a significant potential risk,” alarm bells are sounding in the United States and across the world about what it may mean for all of us.
This new variant may simply be a continuation of the same battle against Covid-19 that began in early 2020. But vaccine makers say there’s a possibility our vaccines won’t be effective against Omicron. Are we at risk of going back to square one against the pandemic?
While we await more details from scientists, this is the time for President Joe Biden and his administration to give a master class in effective and honest leadership in the face of a potential new crisis.
Biden has already stepped up on that front, announcing just hours after South Africa’s health minister released information about the new variant, flights have been banned from seven African nations where the variant has been spreading (in contrast, in early 2020, Former President Donald Trump waited until after 45 other countries had banned flights from China — given the virus spread there — to impose a ban of flights from that nation into the United States).
From here, Biden should hold regular press briefings to update Americans on new developments, and, as he did when he first took office, these coronavirus briefings should be led by medical experts who can provide scientifically-based information to a nation eager to know. But Biden should be there himself to show Americans he is in charge, and on top of this. In a crisis, Americans look to the President for leadership. In fact, in March 2020, at the outset of the pandemic, then President Trump saw his approval ratings rise as Americans rallied around him in the face of a crisis.
But the bump in the polls for Trump was short-lived. No doubt Trump’s plummeting approval ratings were caused by his spewing lies and misinformation about the virus, even suggesting ingesting “disinfectants” to defeat it. Trump also chose to model dangerous behavior during the pandemic by literally mocking people for wearing masks and repeatedly holding events in violation of social distancing guidelines at a time when there were no vaccines to protect us.
PolitiFact summed up well Trump’s overall message about the deadly pandemic: “The threat to your health was overhyped to hurt the political fortunes of the president.”
Even though Trump is out of office, we got a reminder Friday of Trumpian-style lies about the virus from Trump’s former advisor Stephen Miller. While on Fox News, Miller declared if Trump were still in office, “We would already have modified vaccines that deal with the new variant.”
Obviously, that’s a lie. The variant was only first announced on Thursday and vaccine manufacturers explained Friday it will take about two weeks to study Omicron. From there, if all goes well, it will take about six weeks to adapt their vaccines accordingly, with the hope being 100 days later a “reformulated” vaccine can be rolled out.
If Trump were in office — given his track record — it’s far more likely he would have dismissed the new variant as “fake news,” or at least downplayed, if he felt it would hurt him or the GOP politically.
But the bar for Biden’s leadership is not — and cannot be — simply being better than a failed, one-term President.
Biden shouldn’t be hesitant in delivering the hard truths to the public. He should also announce plans now about how he would rapidly deliver the new Omicron-tweaked vaccine shots into arms, if needed, much the way his administration did with the original vaccines after he took office. (Reminder: When Biden took office, the Trump administration was averaging a little over 700,000 vaccines injected a day. Biden expanded that to averaging over three million vaccines a day within a few months before the numbers declined).
This is not about politics but saving lives, and our economy. This is a time for President Biden to show Americans what effective, science-driven, compassionate leadership looks like. It’s a crisis like this that explains why Americans chose to elect Joe Biden as president.
Editor’s note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.