U.S. president-elect Joe Biden says the coronavirus pandemic is his top priority as he prepares to enter the White House against the backdrop of an unprecedented health crisis that has rattled the nation.
Two days after The Associated Press projected Biden had clinched victory in a divisive election, Biden unveiled a 13-member coronavirus task force, including prominent doctors, academics and former government health officials, signalling his intent to take a science-based approach to fight the pandemic.
“Folks, our work begins with getting COVID under control. We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality or relish life’s most precious moments — hugging our grandchildren, our children, our birthdays, weddings, graduations — all the moments that matter most to us — until we get it under control,” the former vice-president said in his victory speech in Delaware on Saturday.
“The goal is to get back to normal as fast as possible,” Biden reasserted on Monday, imploring Americans to wear masks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been at the centre of a polarizing election campaign.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been a vocal critic of lockdown restrictions and has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the pandemic, has drawn sharp criticism from political opponents, voters and health experts for his handling of the crisis.
The Republican president, who has yet to concede defeat, has also touted unproven drugs as treatment and undermined health officials.
Analysts say they are hopeful about Biden’s plans to respond to the crisis once he takes office on Jan. 20, 2021.
“I think Biden will use the bully pulpit of the White House in a way that encourages public attention to and serious consideration of the pandemic, in contrast to Donald Trump, who downgraded the significance of the pandemic and spoke as though it was on the verge of going away from the very inception,” Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told the Global News in a phone interview from Washington, D.C.
Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Global News that “things can only get better from now.”
“The plan that’s been articulated by the Biden campaign and the transition team seems to be one that endorses … testing, tracing, isolating, being able to do tests at home, and restoring the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and other scientific agencies to the helm of this response,” he said.
The United States is the worst-affected country, with the highest number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
As of Tuesday, more than 10.1 million people have been infected nationwide and at least 238,000 have died because of the virus.
The country is seeing a resurgence of the virus, with record-high levels of infections and hospitalizations.
Public health policy falls under the jurisdiction of the local and state governments.
The incoming Biden administration is seeking a more co-ordinated national approach to the pandemic, but there could be political challenges along the way, particularly in getting Senate approval for legislation.
The fate of the Senate is still in the air with two races in Georgia headed for runoff elections in January 2021.
“Assuming the Republicans keep the Senate, I do think that there will probably be some some gridlock that occurs,” Adalja said.
As part of his election campaign, Biden laid out a seven-point plan to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, focusing on implementing nationwide mask mandates, expanding access to testing, providing evidence-based national guidance and planning for equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines.
In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, the U.S.’s land borders with both Canada and Mexico were closed to non-essential travel in mid-March. The borders will remain shut until at least Nov. 21.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last month that Canada “would love to have the border open,” but any changes to the restrictions would be made “as safely as possible” for Canadians.
“The critical question with respect to opening up the borders for travel back and forth depends on a level of trust between the two governments, which has been seriously eroded, if not completely undermined by the less-than-cordial relationship between the government in Washington and that in Ottawa,” Aaron noted.
Biden has vowed to restore the country’s relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO) after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the UN health agency in July.
The U.S. is WHO’s largest donor, contributing more than $400 million last year — roughly 15 per cent of the Geneva-based organization’s total budget.
Aaron, the Brookings Institute scholar, said rejoining the WHO and its global vaccine alliance is an “extremely important” step.
Adalja, from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said formulating a comprehensive vaccine development and distribution plan will be key in the first six months of Biden’s presidency.
“The U.S. co-operating with the WHO in the middle of a pandemic will only make it stronger and give the U.S. more influence on those global policies that are going to be implemented.”
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