Mar 17, 2022 - Podcasts

Waiting for a COVID social reckoning

China is facing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, and nearly half of Europe has recorded double-digit increases in COVID-19 cases in the past week. And here in the U.S. where cases are still declining, Americans seem to be moving on without what journalist Ed Yong calls, “a social reckoning” as we near 1 million COVID deaths.

  • Plus, strong language from Presidents Biden and Zelensky.
  • And, we answer a listener question about the transition away from fossil fuels.

Guests: Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic, and Axios' Ben Geman.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Thursday, March 17th. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today: strong language from presidents Biden and Zelensky. Plus, we answer a listener question about the transition away from fossil fuels. But first, our one big thing: waiting for a COVID social reckoning.

China is facing its worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic - and nearly half of Europe has recorded double-digit increases in COVID-19 cases in the past week. In Finland, case numbers have jumped 84 percent. Although cases here in the U.S. are still declining, and mask and vaccine mandates have expired in many places, experts say there’s a risk that we could face a similar surge here. And Americans seem to be moving on without what journalist Ed Yong calls, “a social reckoning” as the U.S. nears 1 million COVID deaths. Ed is a science writer at The Atlantic who's been covering this pandemic since day one and joins us now. Hi Ed.

ED YONG: Hi, thanks for having me.

NIALA: Ed, how has this amount of death become normal to us? I wonder if part of the reason why is because of the sheer magnitude of it in sort of this paradoxical way?

ED: I agree. And it's horrible how much the scale of the deaths that the U.S. has been accumulating gets overlooked. More than a thousand people have died almost every single day for six months. And as I wrote, you know, once that would have felt like a thunderclap and now it just feels like the click of a metronome. It feels like the sort of background ambient noise against which the rest of us are trying to live our lives. And it's really hard to keep focused on that level of suffering. The deaths you know, haven't fallen randomly across the entire country. They've disproportionately hit the older people, sicker people, poorer Blacker, browner people. And I think that's partly why the U.S. has moved on without a proper reckoning for those deaths. The kinds of deaths that the U.S. has been willing to tolerate, during the pandemic era, I think part of it is that the social reckoning that I'm calling for is to say that, that isn't okay.

NIALA: So what would a social reckoning look like? What does that mean?

ED: I think it involves creating space for people to mourn, for people to grieve. I think a lot of that grief is being trampled amid the stampede to return back to normal. There are advocacy groups right now calling for a national day of mourning, a national day of remembrance. And, I think almost the greatest thing we could do now is put in the kinds of measures and policies that would have saved lives during this pandemic and will continue to do so for future variants and future viruses. But a lot of the things that were put into place have been rolled back. A lot of things that actually benefited people like remote working options, sick leave policies. Those are the types of things that we could do more of. Paid sick leave would do a huge amount of good, better ventilation for everyone would do a huge huge amount of good. And unless we really grapple with and take that seriously, we're going to be facing death of the scale probably for future variants, probably for future viruses. We can't just move on and pretend that, you know, we're living in 2019 again.

NIALA: Ed, you've been covering this pandemic since day one. And I wonder how you feel about where we go from here as a society?

ED: Yeah. Um, it's really hard. So on the one hand, I'm a little pessimistic about where we go from here. But I think that one truism that has been a constant throughout the pandemic and remains so now is that there is always time to do better at this. Um, you know, we aren't consigned to nihilism, and an erosion of our ability to handle pathogens. We can do better. And we should do. There is always an opportunity to honor our dead and to ensure that fewer people join their ranks in the future.

NIALA: Ed Yong is a science writer at the Atlantic. Thank you, Ed. We appreciate your time and perspective on this.

ED: Thanks so much.

NIALA: With so many workplaces opening up across the country, we want to check in with those of you who are immunocompromised or have a disability. How are you feeling about this moment in the pandemic? If you can send a brief voice message to (202) 918-4893, and let us know if you’d rather remain anonymous.

In 15 seconds, the historic language from President Zelensky - and Biden yesterday.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. I wanted to pause for a minute to recognize the remarkable language we heard from President Zelensky and Biden yesterday. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky made a historic plea to the U.S. Congress Wednesday to intervene to save the lives of his people. And he ended with this line, which he delivered in English:

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: "Being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace."

NIALA: Like Zelensky’s previous virtual speeches - to the UK and Canadian Parliaments, he received a standing ovation, with some American lawmakers in tears watching a video of the death and destruction caused by the Russian military. Hours later, President Biden announced 800 million dollars in new military assistance to Ukraine. He called the aid “unprecedented.” But he has not moved on Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone over his country, which Biden has previously suggested could be the start of World War III. But on Wednesday President Biden also called Russian president Vladimir Putin a war criminal – the first time he has used that language to describe the actions of Putin against the people of Ukraine.

NIALA: Every week on the podcast, we're answering some of the climate change questions you've been sending us. And for today, we're turning to Axios’ energy reporter Ben Geman. Hey, Ben.

BEN GEMAN: Hey, how are ya?

NIALA: Good. Here's Heather in Brooklyn, New York with her question.

HEATHER: Hi, Niala and the Axios team. I'm wondering if you could go more in depth about our reliance on fossil fuels here in the United States and how we can make a transition to clean energy. As well as include some concrete steps that just normal people like me can take to demand that from our current administration. Thank you so much.

BEN: Hey, Heather. Okay. So right now U.S. electricity and transportation and heavy industries are really very reliant on fossil fuels, but, you know, that said, growing less so all the time. I mean, fossil fuels, we're about 60% of our electric power last year, you know, natural gas had the biggest slice and coal, which was once totally dominant, provides less. I think one really key thing is not only whether we're reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, which is happening, but how quickly and there we've got a problem. I mean, look, global carbon emissions from energy probably hit an all time high last year. So the bottom line is the transition just needs to happen faster. And that means policies that deploy existing clean energy technology much more quickly. That's really important. But it also means stronger efforts to scale more nascent technologies and develop wholly new technologies as well. So, you know, what, what can people do? I mean, a hard question. I think telling leaders that it's a priority is important and asking for and demanding specifics. Right now long-term carbon and climate pledges and commitments are really popular among governments and corporations, but specifics are honestly in somewhat shorter supply. And, you know, finally I think that it's not just about federal policy. I think demanding focus from all levels of government really matters too.

NIALA: Okay, so Ben, I have a follow-up question for you. Does the war in Ukraine help or hurt our dependence on fossil fuels? Will this speed up a clean energy push?

BEN: I think right now, what we're already seeing is that there's going to be some headwinds for clean energy created from this and some tailwinds. In the United States, I think the really wild card here is natural gas. I mean, certainly we're seeing that the U.S. is exporting more liquified natural gas to Europe and, you know, we're becoming the largest LNG exporter in the whole world. That's just a really complicated thing from a climate question. On the one hand, it burns cleaner than coal, but on the other hand, there's concern about just locking in more and more fossil fuel infrastructure, be it gas or anything else. And in the long term to fight climate change, we ultimately need to start moving away from all fossil fuels.

NIALA: Axios’ energy reporter and coauthor of the Generate newsletter, Ben Geman. Thanks, Ben.

BEN: Thanks for having me back on.

NIALA: One final note for today - We started the week talking to Axios’ Neil Irwin about The Fed’s actions to combat inflation – Well, yesterday, they did it – The Fed raised the target for short term interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point. It’s the first since 2018. And this could be one of many.

That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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