Should President Biden ‘work through’ COVID-19?

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

“The American mindset is we just don’t know how to relax and rest,” a Los Angeles emergency room physician told TBEN.

This week, President Biden was part of the work-through-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 that both professional and personal plans had been disrupted. He would go to Pennsylvania that afternoon and then spend the weekend on the beach in Delaware. Instead, he’ll be in the White House until at least the middle of next week.

Joe Biden

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

Insulating, yes, but also working, as the White House has gone to great lengths to show. “Look, the president can be a 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.

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For observers concerned about the sustainability of America’s work culture, that sent the wrong message, part of what these critics generally view as a missed opportunity to rethink political and social priorities. Anne Helen Peterson, co-author of a recent book on how the pandemic has changed the American workplace, wrote in her newsletter in May about the phenomenon of “working through” and concerned “people who have internalized a personal or structural work ethic who whispering 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 courage and resilience.”

The reality of Biden’s current job complicates the calculation of work versus rest. In recent months, questions about the president’s age and health have become more pressing. His battle with the coronavirus is likely to bolster that story, be it fair or not. Although the president has been vaccinated and double-vaccinated, his advanced age – turning 80 in November – is a source of concern to many.

To allay those concerns, the White House has released photos and videos of Biden working at his desk. “The president has been working from the residence, like so many of us during this pandemic,” Jean-Pierre said on Thursday. “He feels tired, but he works very hard for the American people,” she added moments later.

Ashish Jha

dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, at a press conference on Thursday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ashish Jha, coordinator of the White House’s COVID-19 response team, who also attended the briefing, dismissed a question as to whether Biden should lead by example and rest for several days. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not particularly ambiguous when it comes to milder cases of COVID-19, such as the one Biden appears to be experiencing, which does not 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 stamina, though he allowed others to need the rest and relaxation that Biden has denied. “I believe that when people feel sick, they absolutely need to get sick in order 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 polio-induced paralysis from the country. And in perhaps the most extreme case, Woodrow Wilson was so severely debilitated by a stroke 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 behavior is under intense scrutiny on Twitter. Perhaps more importantly, the coronavirus is a condition the whole world is struggling with. As with his predecessor, Donald Trump, anything Biden does or doesn’t do when it comes to the pandemic sends a message.

Of course, the war in Ukraine, domestic inflation and any number of political crises — including his own growing unpopularity — can make it difficult for the president to relax. And since his symptoms — runny nose, fatigue, fever that seem to have subsided Friday morning, according to an update from his personal doctor — 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 when his symptoms are mild and manageable,” physician and writer Lucy McBride told Yahoo News in a text message. “I encourage my own patients to know their own bodies and rest when needed. An important part of health is trusting our own instincts.”

But since COVID-19 can cause cognitive symptoms, working during illness 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 the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

Then there’s the broader question of what message Biden could be sending about how Americans should view 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 view that message as misleading.

“While I’m thankful that @POTUS is experiencing only 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 to rest if they’re not feeling well. That is not healthy.”