On April 10, President Biden signed a bill ending the COVID-19 national emergency, with the public health emergency set to expire in May. As the federal government prepares to restructure its COVID response and roll back protections and access to healthcare, we’re left with a stark reality. The pandemic isn’t over, but those in power have deemed it so.
We’re seeing the effects of these short-sighted decisions everywhere. Government-run testing sites are disappearing and hospitals are revoking their mask mandates. Biden, who once critiqued Trump for downplaying the pandemic, letting too many people die of COVID-19, and believing that removing testing infrastructure meant people weren’t getting sick, is now doing the same thing calling it progress.
The effects of COVID protection and regulation rollbacks are not just theoretical. We’re already witnessing the devastating aftermath, and that burden is heaviest on the shoulders of chronically ill and disabled people, poor folks, and non-white communities.
Kimberly Vered Shashoua, LCSW, is a therapist who uses their experience with chronic illness to help others. Shashoua lives with autoimmune and neurological issues that puts them at a high risk of complications if they get COVID. They’re based in Texas, where it is legally forbidden for doctors to mandate that their staff wear masks, meaning that Shashoua and other high-risk patients have to interact with unmasked staff or patients while attending medically necessary appointments.
To protect themselves, Shashoua invests in a reusable N95 respirator mask, uses an antiviral nasal spray and cetylpyridinium chloride mouthwash, and avoids sharing physical space with others outside of their household.
“The government seems to want me dead,” they said.
In January 2022, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said it was “encouraging news” that the overwhelming number of COVID deaths occurred in people with at least four comorbidities.
“Emotionally, how do you deal with the government stating that your death would not be mourned?” said Shashoua. “It’s fucking hard. Being chronically ill right now means navigating systems with constant reminders of how little the people in those systems value you.”
In Chicago, Evan—a chronically ill musician and organizer who is only using his first name to not endanger his job prospects—has noticed that most of the previously available COVID resources in the city have since disappeared.
“Free, public PCR testing used to be at least somewhat widely available and has ceased to exist entirely,” said Evan. “The mask mandate on public transit outlasted other mandates, but has [also] since been revoked. Now mask mandates in healthcare settings are being revoked as well.
Without these precautions and resources, Evan feels like he’s been shut out from public and social life, and his stress has triggered physical health issues.
“Aside from the constant anxiety of not feeling or being safe in public, I’ve [also] begun going into debt because I haven’t been able to find work that is safe for me,” said Evan.
For people privileged enough to work from home for most of the pandemic, return to office (RTO) policies now threaten that safety. Those who had to work in-person during the pandemic—like retail or service workers—had a COVID mortality rate that was five times higher than those who worked remotely. These odds mean that high-risk folks are expected to literally put their lives on the line to pay rent.
Parents of school-aged children are also struggling to stay safe as schools roll back their COVID precautions. S, who is using a pseudonym to protect their child’s identity, has a 9-year-old autistic son enrolled at a school in east Tennessee where students and teachers no longer wear masks. The son still wears N95 masks and glasses daily, which can turn into a sensory burden..
“Our government, on every goddamn level, has completely abandoned us,” said S. When their son’s school required masks, their family never got sick. After the mask mandate was lifted, there was an outbreak in their son’s classroom. If he tests positive, he’s still expected to return to school even before he tests negative.
“It shouldn’t be left up to one single parent to educate an entire school system on anti-COVID measures,” said S. “This is a systemic failure from the top down.”
Without state protection, marginalized people are doing what they’ve always been forced to do: figure things out themselves. Myra Batchelder, a health policy strategist and advocate, dealt with health issues due to long COVID-19 and is involved in a number of COVID prevention and Long COVID advocacy groups at local, state, and national levels.
“At Mandate Masks NY, we are leading city and state advocacy efforts to get free N95 and KN95 masks to people who need them, to mandate masks in medical settings and public transit, and to save lives from COVID-19,” said Batchelder. “We also created a NYC Mask Guide which highlights public spaces in NYC that still require masks and other COVID-19 prevention efforts and help protect people, including those at higher risk.”
Shashoua supports their chronically ill patients by helping them navigate insurance woes and educating them on how to pace and manage Long COVID symptoms—all knowledge that should be readily accessible but is often left for the patient to figure out themselves. Shashoua is also part of an international group of therapists that are still COVID-safe.
“We emotionally support each other when the world seems to want to forget that we exist,” they said. “I am also in the early stages of an interdisciplinary health-care organizing movement.”
Chris W.Z. Reader, a disabled comics bookshop owner in Easthampton Massachusetts, has always taken accessibility seriously—even before they knew they had osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.
“I’m personally an anarchist, and I think it’s important to take care of each other,” said Reader. Though they never dreamed of owning a business, they opened Comics n’ More about nine years ago and have been supported “by local, regional and increasingly online customers.”
In spring 2020, Reader commissioned about a dozen artists to design pro-mask posters. Though they knew they could have focused on online sales, Reader identified that COVID was an existential threat that they should do something about.
“Nobody was using positive messaging about masks then,” they said, “and there still isn’t much.” At the store, Reader continues to implement a mask mandate and provides free masks to those who need them—from service workers to students to senior center residents.
“At times, I’ve joked that the whole thing is weird for a comic book store to have to do,” they said. “[It’s] kind of an indictment of the system.”
Though community care and mutual aid is heartening, these efforts are nowhere near as prevalent as they were in 2020 or 2021. It’s devastating to watch the forced removal of pandemic protections—many of which were transformational for reasons outside of just preventing COVID. It’s incredibly important, and even necessary, for those on the side of justice not to forget about those of us who are high-risk. It’s long past time for leftists to not only champion COVID precautions in their personal lives, but to also push back against state abandonment and oppression, as we do with so many other causes. High-risk people are already doing this work, and we all have much to gain by joining in.
If you’re considering taking up the mantle, try upgrading your surgical masks to N95s, KN95s, or KF94s. Wear them whenever you’re indoors or in crowded outdoor settings, especially at places like public transport, doctors’ offices, and grocery stores. Build Corsi-Rosenthal boxes or buy HEPA filter air purifiers to set up in your home or place of work. Test before and after events. Include virtual options whenever possible, and try to host gatherings outdoors with publicized precautions.
If you no longer take COVID precautions or aren’t involved in organizing around COVID consciousness, I’d like to leave you with a final question: if we don’t trust the government because they surveil, impoverish, kill, and imprison us, why are we trusting them when they say that the pandemic is over?