The Pandemic Isn't Over
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but COVID isn’t going anywhere...
"Estragon: All the dead voices.
Vladimir: They make a noise like wings… Like ashes"
-Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
In response to calls to reinstate community-level mitigations, the most basic of pandemic protections, many pundits, lawmakers, and randos on twitter have said that returning to a society that gives a shit about COVID is now automatically impossible. Never citing any actual reason why, just polling and vibes, people will scream at you that arguing for pandemic protections is like demanding a wishlist that will “bankrupt the government”—never mind the fact that this fiscal burden argument has been used against disabled people for centuries, spending on COVID protections is spending that is good for the economy. Money can still move around and circulate outside of the realm of individual consumer purchases—the economy is much broader than your treats and snacks.
The material circumstances of many disabled people’s lives flex and strain the boundaries and systems of value held in place by capitalist logics. It makes sense to me that demands to protect the vulnerable (disabled people, children under five, elders, low income workers) are met with debt-hysterics. Visible dependency is stigmatized, criminalized, and quite literally economically devalued. Investments in public health and protections become a “waste of money” or “impossible visions of utopia”—money spent to mitigate the social determinants of health is compared to setting cash on fire.
But here’s the thing, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but COVID isn’t going anywhere, it’s been declared over at least a dozen times, and yet, officially, the United States reported 190,000 new positive cases in a single day this week. The official number is an undercount, the true number of infections is estimated to be five to ten times higher than what is being recorded and reported to the CDC. This is not some vast conspiracy, this is just because home-test results are not recorded and out-of-home testing is more inaccessible than it has been at any point in the pandemic—all downstream of political decisions about what warranted funding and what did not.
At some point we will have to get serious about managing this pandemic. When are we going to do it? I don’t know. Big ideas and big plans can coexist with our narrow political reality—this is a lesson we all need to learn, and quickly. We need to demand what would make us feel safe, not just demand what we think might be feasible. I’m not trying to sound like I’m saying fixing COVID is simply a matter of mindset—but I am saying that it’s time to sit down and say, “Fuck what is politically feasible, what would we need to do to get COVID under control and try to do something about all the death?” It’s a big task. We really need to sit down and start seriously thinking about how we can work to build a society that goes beyond the bare-minimum on not just COVID but all public health.
In the fall of 2021 we abandoned layered mitigations. Since then, 400,000 more people have died of COVID in the U.S.—some of those deaths could have been prevented with masking. Many more could have been prevented with comprehensive approaches to non-pharmaceutical interventions, like promoting or mandating physical distancing in public and self-isolation when infected, broad access to free testing and masks, limiting the size of gatherings, mask mandates for public places and transportation, paid sick leave, childcare support, decarceration, HVAC upgrades, air filtration, infrastructure upgrades, eviction protections, supporting teleworking, unemployment support, rent freezes, Medicare for All, paying people to stay home, “circuit breaker shutdowns”—including even reactive school closures (yes, I know I’m going to get hate mail about this but I don’t give a fuck).
I’m serious when I say we need to do everything we can to help alleviate pressure on our healthcare systems. Our healthcare workforce is not a bunch of sims who can be respawned when they are too burned out from work. You claim to care about the interruption of normal medical care? Then get off your ass and do something about COVID so my internist can get a decent night's sleep for the first time in years. So my infusion nurse can catch her breath. So my imaging tech isn’t coming into work still symptomatic, and so all the millions of under valued workers who keep our healthcare system running with their blood and sweat know we haven’t abandoned them too. Do something about COVID if not for the vulnerable because we are an “economic burden” on society, then for the healthcare workers.
But instead of making big demands—we’re just sitting around on our asses, dipping our toes in the discourse, and debating if the pandemic is still happening or not. We cannot sit and wait until we know exactly how we stand. Yes, the iron is no longer hot, but it’s better to still strike the iron before it freezes, then not strike it at all.
When we make decisions which result in the excess deaths of the vulnerable we remove those voices from the body politic. One million dead, one million less from our demos, one million less from our ‘we.’ (“All the dead voices… They make a noise like wings… Like ashes"). When life is only valued relative to an individual’s personhood, and personhood is only measured relative to an individual’s contributions to the economy, then our lives are limited to such small horizons of the politically possible. That’s no way to live.
If you’re behind on the state of the pandemic and want to quickly get a comprehensive picture of where we are at right now with COVID, here are two recent Death Panel episodes that will bring you up to speed.