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Can Olivia Rodrigo and TikTok Save Us From the Delta Variant?

The White House is putting money into pro-vaccine influencer campaigns while dropping the ball on essential efforts to save Americans from eviction and poverty.

Olivia Rodrigo addresses the press at the White House
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“I think I flirted with Dr. Fauci, but in a respectful way,” said Tinx, a TikTok star with more than a million followers, a signature Chipotle bowl, and a reputation for good dating advice, after her recent discussion with the presidential adviser. She is, as The New York Times reported this weekend, one of the influencers—from buzzy pop star Olivia Rodrigo to millennial TikTok mavens—enlisted by the Biden administration (and the marketing companies paid millions of dollars on its behalf) to sing the praises of the vaccine, especially for people 18 to 39, who lag behind older Americans in getting vaccinated. The White House campaign, combined with other state and local-level efforts, represents “a counterattack against a rising tide of vaccine misinformation that has flooded the internet, where anti-vaccine activists can be so vociferous that some young creators say they have chosen to remain silent on vaccines to avoid a politicized backlash.” The campaign is designed to be “a positive information effort,” countering the flood of negative misinformation that has made some young people buy into false theories, like that their arms might become magnetized, as one popular TikTok meme claims.

On its own, this makes sense. The Delta variant of Covid-19 is ravaging many communities, and the vaccine has been shown to be extremely effective against serious illness or death. The need to promote vaccine acceptance—by any and all means, including through family members and doctors, who have been found to be most influential in swaying opinion—could not be more clear.

But efforts to increase vaccine uptake across the country are just one piece of an effective pandemic response: People’s basic needs must also be accounted for, especially in a time of rolling economic crisis. And it’s here that the Biden administration is sending wildly mixed messages. On Saturday, the national eviction moratorium expired. After weeks of indecision, the White House spent a few days appearing to scramble for a solution, only to off-load the problem to Congress, which is pointing back at him to act. Meanwhile, a major federal rent relief program has only distributed 7 percent of its $47 billion fund. The failure is one of effective bureaucracy as much as it is one of political will.

The Biden administration can ally with teens on TikTok all it wants—it’s good to combat disinformation and use the tools of these platforms for something like harm reduction—but without programs to keep people in their homes, with checks coming in despite a loss of work, and other material interventions, it won’t be enough. (Oh, and masks.) It’s still unclear whether Democratic leaders accept this reality: that the willingness to cede these solutions to the market will only exacerbate pandemic-induced economic shocks, ultimately ensuring that more people get sick and more people die.

Government relief efforts—including direct payments to workers and families—have been instrumental in reducing poverty. (One can only wonder how the economic scene would look if, somehow, Senator Bernie Sanders and other leftists were able to follow through on their promise of $2,000 monthly cash payments for the duration of the current crisis.) Consequently it’s disappointing, if not surprising, that the Biden administration, by letting more expansive unemployment insurance benefits lapse, is giving in to Republican canards about benefits undermining businesses’ ability to hire workers. Its hands-off approach to the eviction moratorium is just as dispiriting, while potentially ensuring a crisis of homelessness that hasn’t been seen since, well, Democrats punted on protecting homeowners during the last major economic crisis.

Were the government pursuing an all-of-the-above approach to tackling the pandemic, its decision to throw money at the internet-famous (and at least one vaccine skeptic) might seem like just another arrow in its quiver. Even if trusted friends, family members, and doctors tend to be most influential in getting others to accept the vaccine, there seems little harm in enlisting a few celebrities to do the same. But with a range of relief measures foundering, it instead seems to reflect a belated effort to conjure a viral marketing campaign when things like 24-hour vaccination sites and more expansive health services are needed.

It is no coincidence that the way out of the Covid crisis is also a way to a potentially more just society, one in which the government ensures people’s basic needs in health care, housing, employment, and the rest of what makes for a decent life. This is not some momentary confluence of leftists’ economic program and what the particular urgency of the moment requires; instead it proves the necessity of socialist guarantees of basic needs and services. The Biden administration, and much of the Democratic establishment, have consistently missed this point, instead offering a series of temporary half-measures: free vaccines but not universal health care, momentary rent relief but not a housing guarantee, once-a-year stimulus checks that don’t even approach what’s needed to make most people whole.

Among the what-could-have-beens, it’s worth noting that the Trump administration and its Republican colleagues, while funding programs like Operation Warp Speed, consistently cast doubt on the scale of the pandemic and the efficacy of vaccines while promoting dubious treatments like hydroxychloroquine. If vaccine skepticism has been appropriated by culture warriors, finding a deep, disturbing hold in the MAGA psyche, it’s Donald Trump who helped plant it there. That’s all the more reason for Democrats to distinguish themselves from their Republican opponents, to become the party of the “positive information” they’re quietly paying influencers to spread. Along with touting the benefits of the jab, Democrats should be pushing for enhanced unemployment benefits, cash payments, free health services, and rent relief. These programs should not be considered interventionist blips on the otherwise steady march of American capitalism. Instead they should be a core part of the Democratic platform, part of a hopeful course that they chart—in rhetoric, legislation, executive orders, and whatever else it takes.

As it is, the Democratic Party has shown a willingness to lose again and again, anything to preserve its right flank and to fend off Republican accusations of socialist excess. By operating on those terms—by showing a ridiculous fealty to arcane measures like the filibuster that do nothing more than preserve a disastrously unequal status quo—the Democrats will always be timid incrementalists foundering on the shoals of conservative obstructionism. It’s time they did something more ambitious. Embrace the programs that prevented millions of people from falling into penury. With these and other relief efforts in place, it’s possible we won’t be placing the weight of ending the pandemic on the shoulders of teenage TikTok stars. And we might carve out a better society in the process.