Tackling the health, economic and social crises wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is the first order of business for US president-elect Joe Biden and his transition team.
Biden this week announced his bipartisan coronavirus taskforce to begin work immediately and continue after he is sworn in as president in January.
The taskforce inherits a range of challenges. Coronavirus is now rampant in the US, and the Trump administration has run down the public health infrastructure and largely abandoned attempts to control the pandemic, preferring to gamble on the imminent arrival of a vaccine.
What will Biden inherit?
The urgency of the problem is highlighted in forecasts released last week by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These predict that in the week ending November 28, there will be 450,000-960,000 new coronavirus cases and 4,600-11,000 deaths from COVID.
Even these stark warnings may be overly optimistic. On November 8, the US was averaging 116,448 new cases a day. So far, more than ten million Americans have been infected, and significant numbers remain disabled with prolonged side-effects. The situation will undoubtedly be much worse by the time Biden is sworn in on January 20.
Who is on the COVID taskforce and what will they do?
Biden’s coronavirus taskforce is headed by three physicians: Vivek Murthy, the former US surgeon general; David Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration; and Marcella Nunez-Smith, who is recognised for her work on promoting health and health-care equity for marginalised populations. All are well known in public health, science and political circles.
Biden said in his acceptance speech these leading experts will:
…help take the Biden-Harris COVID plan and convert it into an action blueprint… That plan will be built on bedrock science… I’ll spare no effort, none, or any commitment, to turn around this pandemic.
The taskforce will build on several months of consultation and work under the auspices of the Biden campaign.
The Biden coronavirus plan, issued during the campaign, is a comprehensive document that recognises the responsibilities of the federal government in ensuring states, counties, local communities, health-care and incarceration facilities, educational systems and individuals have the protections, resources and information needed to address the pandemic. Special focus is placed on tackling the racial and ethnic disparities highlighted by the pandemic.
The taskforce must reach out to the states — both Democrat and Republican — as the Biden plan relies on their cooperation with new federal initiatives. These include possible mask mandates, supply chains for personal protective equipment, testing supplies, therapeutics, vaccines and needed additional health-care services.
Getting straight to business
The taskforce has already briefed Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris. Biden then issued a public statement on November 9, further detailing his plans for tackling the pandemic and rebuilding the economy.
His statement coincided with news from Pfizer about the promising test results for its coronavirus vaccine. Biden’s response was one of cautious optimism, in stark contrast to President Donald Trump, who hyped the stock market implications.
How will the taskforce work with the White House team?
The taskforce’s work is unlikely to step on the toes of the White House coronavirus advisory group, which has largely ceased to function as Trump has lost interest.
The former chief spokesperson for the White House coronavirus advisory group Deborah Birx has issued an urgent memo pleading for “much more aggressive action” to curb the virus.
The Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic in recent months is succinctly summed up by White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows: “We are not going to control the pandemic.”
This is ironic in light of Meadows’ own infection, joining Trump and many other members of the White House in having contracted the coronavirus.
What else happens during this transition period?
In 2008, the outgoing Bush administration was willing to take advice and guidance from the Obama transition team on efforts to address the global financial crisis. Most notably, Bush agreed to Obama’s request to ask Congress to release more funds for the economic bailout.
Biden will now push to get the Senate to pass a coronavirus relief bill that is so urgently needed. This would include additional unemployment benefits and funding boosts for treatment, testing and tracing, and for education and health-care systems.
Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have each recently indicated their interest in passing such a measure, but they are at odds on the scope of legislation.
Could Biden’s input help them find common ground, or will partisanship prevail?
Many issues need to be tackled all at once
The Biden-Harris team will need to work simultaneously on these issues and a raft of others. Biden must, in short order, announce his cabinet and get them working on their agendas; assess which of Trump’s actions need to be undone (including withdrawal from the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate agreement); develop legislation and executive orders if he can’t get the Senate to work cooperatively and pass bills that come forward from the House of Representatives; and have a contingency plan in case the US Supreme Court overturns Obamacare in 2021.
Biden’s transition team features many people who previously worked for the Obama administration. This bodes well for strengthening and rebuilding Obamacare into Bidencare. Ensuring people have affordable access to health care has never been more important.
Biden has also promised to reinstate the national and international public health and first responder systems that Trump dismantled. This includes bringing back the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense and continued support for the work of the World Health Organisation.
None of this will be successful unless, and until, Biden can bring Congress together to act and simultaneously begin healing the divisions in the nation. He must restore trust in government and science, ensure transparency and accountability, and build a common purpose so people will act for the common good. That’s a big ask — but the coronavirus pandemic demands it.