[color photo of memorial to public health, consisting of a cardboard box containing flowers and a small framed black & white photo of an image of a cholera cell and the Broad Street Pump, with text: Public E Health 1854-2023. The box sits on brick pavers; the whole is splashed with raindrops.]
[image below: Left side: graph of national year-over-year Effective SARS-CoV-2 virus concentration (copies / mL of sewage), last updated Apr 3 from data Mar 27. In 2023: 284 copies /mL; 2022: 172 c/mL; 2021: 201 c/mL; 2020: 303 c/mL. Right side: graph of local Multnomah County (solid line) and US national (dotted line) Effective SARS-CoV-2 virus concentration (copies / mL of sewage). Multnomah County: Mar 29: 437 copies/mL; nationwide: 283 copies/mL.]
Current Wastewater Data from USA and from Multnomah County
Another version of this commentary is available on Counterpunch.org.
I really, really want left organizations to rethink "back to normal" in the pandemicine.
I can't tell you how demoralizing it is to see announcements of meetings or other events that I might want to go to, but for which I see no information about Covid precautions. Is it virtual? Is it hybrid? Will people be wearing respirators? What's the ventilation like in that indoor venue? Are we living on separate planets?
Nate Holdren, writing in Peste Magazine, has described this feeling as "Broken Sociality":
"Experiences of community are offered but not actually present, in that they're present only via serious risks which are often un- or under-acknowledged." Holdren calls this "social loneliness," because it means "reduced time doing things and seeing people compared to pre-pandemic -- because fewer places are doing anything (let alone enough) to mitigate covid exposure," and it can also mean feeling alone in a crowd because one is the only person wearing a respirator.
This "social loneliness," Holdren notes, "blurs into another facet of broken sociality. . . political loneliness. This is the sense of a gulf in values or in understanding of some very important aspects of the world." "Knowing that the [supposed] return to normal means even more dying and life-altering suffering is terrible. Knowing that many people seem not to realize this, that people in officially respected positions seem to find this acceptable, that fellow travelers on the left don’t treat this as a priority, that all feels isolating to a degree I find hard to overstate."
As Holdren notes, this affective experience is of course less awful than the "suffering, inequality, disablement, and death" that the "pseudo-return" to normal is creating.
But it's not unrelated, and it all bodes ill for our collective future.
We know that our collective crises have disproportionate impacts on those already vulnerable. We know that the pandemic disproportionately harms workers and poor people and people of color and incarcerated people and of course the swelling ranks of people with disabilities. And we know that all of this will be getting worse with the end of the federal emergency declaration, with millions being thrown off Medicaid, with the lifting of masking requirements even in healthcare settings.
As Holdren notes, it would be wrong to hold any of this against the folks just trying to make it though. The problem comes from the ruling class--capitalists, government, and mainstream media--who have been trying to enforce back to normal for years now. But I wish that more of my comrades were more skeptical about the mainstream / capitalist propaganda, more concerned with care for the vulnerable, and more aware that any of us may be one infection away from becoming vulnerable ourselves.
Despite the sociological construction of the end of the emergency, the pandemic has not really ended. Covid is still killing hundreds of people each day in the US, and debilitating and disabling even more, even population subgroups commonly considered "low risk"--since, as the John Snow Project notes, it has in fact not been "established that such subgroups exist." Everyone and anyone is at risk.
And the risk has not declined in the past year. Nationwide wastewater levels--one of the only reliable measures of viral circulation still available, now that tests are less available, less accurate, and less reported-- are higher than they were at this time last year or the year before, and in Multnomah County are almost twice the nationwide level. Although vaccines have massively reduced the death toll during the initial, acute phase of illness, their efficacy wanes in a few months, and most of those now dying of Covid are vaccinated. Even at their best, vaccines do relatively little to reduce transmission, long covid, or other health impacts.
Those lucky enough to feel only mild or no symptoms at all can still pass it on to others for whom it may be life-altering or life-ending. Somewhere between 1 in 20 and one in two people infected suffer the weeks, months, or years-long persistence of Long Covid.
But there are also less obvious dangers for those who seem to recover. Even among the asymptomatic, each infection further increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, brain damage, new-onset diabetes, kidney and liver damage, hearing and vision loss, and other bodily injury. The virus seems to increase the risk and progression of cancer. It impairs the immune system, making people more vulnerable to other illnesses.
Moreover, each transmission increases the chances for the virus to mutate again and potentially to become more harmful. SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has evolved so much that a recent article in the Lancet suggested it might actually now be SARS-Cov-3. In the US it has already become more immune evasive, and undermined previously useful treatments like Evusheld and monoclonal antibodies--and there is no indication the virus is getting milder, despite a common myth about how viruses tend to evolve.
But we have lots of reminders and resources for thinking this through, especially from disability justice groups. As disability activist Mia Mingus has pointed out, there's no reason the slogan "We keep us safe" should apply only to some forms of harm (like from police, or domestic/sexual violence) but not to others (like monkeypox or covid). Or as one longtime HIV-AIDS activist noted, "If you can give out condoms, you can give out masks at the door with a flyer explaining why they’re vital for survival and solidarity."
So, here are some further tips on Practicing Inclusion in the Time of COVID from the group Strategies for High Impact in collaboration with the group What Would an HIV Doula do?
When your group organizes a meeting or other event, think about how to make it genuinely inclusive. Think about how welcoming it might be, or not, to those who can't afford to take time off from work if they get sick, or to those who are immune-suppressed, or immune-compromised, or already suffering Long Covid, or otherwise debilitated or disabled, or, who have family members who are.
And if you really want to welcome those folks, then ask yourself and your fellow organizers, Can we hold our gathering online? If not, how about providing, wearing, and requiring KN95 masks or N95 respirators? (Because yes, despite what you may have heard, respirators do work especially if everyone wears them).
How about having a hybrid meeting option? How about meeting outdoors or creating more airflow indoors? Open more windows? Build DIY air filters?
When you annouce your meeting or event, let people know what kinds of precautions are in place. Show that you've thought about it. And plan ahead to follow through.
What are you willing to do as a group to protect people from COVID exposure? How can you ensure that agreed-upon practices will be followed?
Let's do what we can to mitigate the harms of a failed or failing system of public health, to build solidarity, and to keep ourselves, our allies, our accomplices, and our movements as strong and sharp as possible for the struggle ahead.
Lyrics to "Sickness" by The Donner Party.