Joe Biden believes we can beat COVID-19 — because we are better than 2020

Biden spoke only briefly on Tuesday, without poetry, but also without bombast. He stumbled on his words, but not a word was untrue.

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President-elect Joe Biden discusses his strategy for combating the coronavirus pandemic, on Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware.

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How hard was that? How hard was it for a president of the United States — or a president-elect — to stand up in a moment of national crisis and put it to us straight and honest and call on us to be one nation, fighting the fight together?

We’ve seen presidents do it before. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, did it after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. George W. Bush, a Republican, did it after the attacks of 9/11.

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On Tuesday, we saw it again with Joe Biden. In an unadorned address of some scant 10 minutes or so, the president-elect called on all Americans, whatever their politics, to pull together and charge into the new year with a resolve to do the simple, practical and sometimes hard stuff necessary to finally contain and beat COVID-19.

Honest to God, how we wish the current president, Donald Trump, had somehow found the empathy and integrity to do exactly this — tell it straight and rally us to the fight — when the pandemic first arrived on our nation’s shores.

Tens of thousands of lives might have been saved. Hospitals might not be facing a post-holidays surge of gravely ill patients. The United States might be on the backside of this pandemic, rather than in the very heart of it, showing the world how it’s done.

Businesses might be closer to reopening. Our lives might be closer to returning to some semblance of normal.

Facing hard facts

“Things are going to get worse before they get better,” Biden said, and that’s just the fact.

More Americans — about 118,000 — were hospitalized this past week than any other week of the pandemic. New cases of COVID-19 are averaging about 200,000 a day. A single-day record for deaths — 3,406 — was set on Dec. 17.

The actual fatality rate from the coronavirus — the percentage of those who catch the bug who fail to recover and die — has flattened and even declined, thanks to better informed medical care and the resilience of younger, healthier people.

But the death toll, now at about 334,000 people, continues to rise and doctors are bracing for a surge of new infections after the holidays. More people traveled by plane on Sunday, two days after Christmas, than on any other day of the pandemic.

“That’s what we’re concerned about — that in addition to the surge, we’re going to have an increase superimposed on that surge, which could make January even worse than December,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday on CNN.

Playing catch-up on vaccines

The distribution of vaccines “is not progressing as it should,” Biden said, and that, too, is just a fact. Vaccines have been available for only a handful of weeks, but already we’re playing catch-up.

The Trump administration had vowed that some 20 million Americans — beginning with people in health care professions and the elderly — would be vaccinated by year’s end, yet only about 11.4 million doses have been sent to the states and only about 2.1 million people have received a dose. At this rate, Biden said, it will “take years, not months,” to vaccinate enough people to contain the pandemic.

Biden said the pandemic presents the United States with its “greatest operational challenge,” which is another way of saying we have to treat this thing like a war — and that, too, is just a fact. There should be no half-measures, no quibbling about the financial commitment that must be made.

As soon as he’s sworn in as president, Biden said, he will invoke the Defense Production Act to boost the production of the “materials” necessary for COVID-19 vaccines. The DPA is a wartime production law that allows the president to order companies to prioritize manufacturing for national security purposes. The federal government, he said, will also set up vaccination sites in “hard-to-reach communities” as part of a massive public relations campaign to educate people on why they should get the vaccine.

Fellow Americans

Biden spoke only briefly on Tuesday, without poetry, but also without bombast. He stumbled on his words, which will always be his way, but not a word was untrue.

Biden spoke like an American president. Like the ones we look back on and admire most. The ones who actually believe in our patriotic commitment to each other — this notion that we are fellow Americans despite our differences — and ask us to do what we can for our country.

It’s not complicated.

Wear the mask, for now. Avoid large indoor gatherings. Cool it, remaining safely at home, on this New Year’s Eve.

Get the vaccine when you can.

We are better than 2020 and we can win this war.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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