HomeHealthShould President Biden 'work through' COVID-19?

Should President Biden ‘work through’ COVID-19?

WASHINGTON — Americans work far more than most of their peers in the developed world, a habit that even a global pandemic couldn’t stop. Many knowledge-class professionals who have the luxury of working from home (service workers rarely enjoy such benefits, or the benefit of paid sick leave), have chosen to do so even when sick with COVID-19, despite corporate executives and medical professionals who insist against such practices.

“The American mentality is that we just don’t know how to relax and rest,” a Los Angeles emergency room doctor told CNBC.

This week, President Biden became part of the COVID dilemma that millions of others have experienced over the past two and a half years. Forced to face the unpleasant reality of a positive COVID-19 test on Thursday morning, he found both professional and personal plans disrupted. He would go to Pennsylvania that afternoon and then spend the weekend on the beach in Delaware. Instead, he will be in isolation in the White House until at least the middle of next week.

Joe Biden

President Biden spoke with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on the phone Thursday. (Adam Schultz/White House via AP)

Insulating, yes, but also functional, as the White House has painstakingly demonstrated. “Look, the president can be president anywhere, right? It doesn’t matter – it doesn’t matter where he is. He has the technology, he has the tools — what he needs — the communication, what he needs to keep doing his job,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing Thursday.

For observers concerned about the sustainability of American work culture, that was the wrong message to send out, part of what these critics more broadly see as a missed opportunity to rethink political and social priorities. In her May newsletter, Anne Helen Peterson, co-author of a recent book on how the pandemic has changed the American workplace, wrote about the phenomenon of “working through” in her newsletter. She was concerned about “people who have internalized a personal or structural work.” ethics that whisper to them – before and after a positive Covid test – that rest is weakness, and the ability to get through illness is a sign of personal determination and resilience.”

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The reality of Biden’s current employment complicates the calculation of work versus rest. In recent months, questions about the president’s age and health have become more probing. His battle with the coronavirus is likely to reinforce that narrative, whether justified or not. Although the president has been vaccinated and given a double boost, his advanced age – he will turn 80 in November – is a cause for concern for many.

To address that concern, the White House has released photos and videos of Biden working at his desk. “The president has been working from the residence, as so many of us have during this pandemic,” Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “He feels tired, but he works very hard for the American people,” she added a little later.

Ashish Jha

Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, at a news conference Thursday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

White House COVID-19 response team coordinator Ashish Jha, who was also at the briefing, deflected a question about whether Biden should lead by example and simply rest for a few days. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aren’t exactly ambiguous when it comes to milder cases of COVID-19, like the one Biden appears to be experiencing, that don’t require hospitalization. “Take care of yourself. Rest and stay hydrated,” the guidelines say.

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Jha dismissed any concerns about the president’s staying power, though he admitted others may need the rest and relaxation that Biden has rejected. “I believe that when people feel sick, they should absolutely be given time to recover,” he said. “The president feels good and feels able to continue working.”

Presidents have certainly worked through illness before. John F. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, a painful adrenal deficiency that required constant medication. Franklin D. Roosevelt largely (if not quite successfully) hid his paralysis caused by polio from the country. And in perhaps the most extreme case, a stroke weakened Woodrow Wilson so thoroughly that his wife, Edith, effectively took over the presidency.

But the coronavirus pandemic comes in the midst of the social media era, when the president’s conduct is under intense scrutiny on Twitter. Perhaps more importantly, the coronavirus is an ailment the entire world is grappling with. As with his predecessor, Donald Trump, everything Biden does or doesn’t do when it comes to the pandemic sends a message.

Of course, the war in Ukraine, domestic inflation and a number of political crises — including his own growing unpopularity — could make it hard for the president to relax. And since his symptoms — runny nose, fatigue, fever that appear to have cleared Friday morning, according to an update from his personal physician — are mild, he may have concluded that he can and should continue his presidential duties.

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Donald Trump

President Donald Trump removes his mask upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Oct. 5, 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“I think it’s absolutely fine for the president to work through COVID, especially if his symptoms are mild and manageable,” physician and writer Lucy McBride told Yahoo News in a text message. “I encourage my own patients to get to know their own bodies and rest when necessary. An important part of health is trusting our own instincts.”

But since COVID-19 can cause cognitive symptoms, working while sick can be counterproductive. If you decide to bring in some work, try to do it on a limited basis. “You may not even be aware of your brain fog,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Then there’s the broader question of the message Biden could be sending about how Americans should see the role of work in their lives, and not just when it comes to the coronavirus. Some may praise him for putting the affairs of the country before his own health, but in a country where overwork has become a chronic condition, others see that message as misplaced.

“While I’m thankful to @POTUS he’s only experiencing mild COVID symptoms, I wish he didn’t have to ‘work’ through it,” tweeted activist Rev. Wendy Hamilton. “Our cultural attachment to ‘workism’ makes people feel like they can’t take a day off if they don’t feel well. That is not healthy.”

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