Pandemic Low

I hit a new pandemic low last week. CDC Director Walensky’s comments about the “encouraging” news that most vaccinated people dying of COVID had multiple comorbidities was the catalyst (see my op ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer), but my despair has been deepening for some time.

Hospitals are breaking. Schools can’t function. Services and business are disrupted. There are shortages in stores again. People we know are getting sick. COVID is blazing through, spreading more wildly than ever before. In many ways, this looks like the worst case scenario that we were all so frightened of in March 2020.

Except most people aren’t scared anymore. Everyone seems to be shrugging their shoulders and giving up hope that we can control this pandemic. “We’ll all get it,” they say, and risk death and disability with casual disregard for the consequences. Our callous treatment of the healthcare workers who must still nurse us through those consequences is appalling. Vaccines are keeping many people out of the hospital and alive, but there’s no comfort in saying that a disaster could be worse.

One of the root causes of our current situation is the individualizing of the pandemic. Mask wearing, social distancing, vaccination–there are no mandates for the general population anymore, just under certain circumstances. We have relegated public health measures to individual choice, opening the door to misinformation and conspiracy theories, and silently giving people permission to be selfish or myopic in making those choices.

The belief that vaccinated people would be fine drove the early end of CDC’s masking recommendations last May. Not only was this overconfidence, but it placed emphasis on the individual’s choice to vaccinate over and above masking’s role in reducing the spread of infection. Policymakers lost sight of the benefit of layering protection. By making it about individual choice, we set aside collective and community-level thinking.

You might think your vaccination or mask choice is just about you and your family, but it’s not. It’s about every single person you come into contact with every single day. If you are infected (which is possible even if you are vaccinated) then you could be passing the infection to anyone in your path (although wearing a mask would lower that risk). Other people could be vaccinated and masked and still catch the virus from you, particularly if you are not taking steps to prevent passing it along.

How many of the people you come into contact with are vulnerable or high risk in some way? You can’t look at a person and know if they have diabetes or cancer or autoimmune disease. Your coworker might have high blood pressure, and you would never know. What about the family members of people you interact with? It’s impossible for you to know that the teenager you sat next to on the bus lives with elderly grandparents, or that the clerk at the convenience store has a child with cystic fibrosis. Yet your behavior and choices place all of them at risk.

No one is safe until everyone is safe. That’s not a hyperbolic slogan. It’s science. But we’re not thinking about it that way. Whatever collective motivation we had to flatten the curve two years ago is gone now. People have decided they’re “done” with the pandemic–as if what we want has anything at all to do with it. Our government and public health apparatus has completely failed to remind people that public health requires action from everyone.

Public health measures, which should be about science, have become politicized hot potatoes. We’re fighting about whether to mandate masks or vaccines, instead of coming together to fight the virus. COVID is never going away. We do have to find ways to live with it. What I don’t understand is why living with it can’t include minimizing disease and transmission. Why can’t we take steps to protect one another from the worst impacts of COVID? We live together in a community, with a social contract. Why doesn’t that social contract mean that we do what is necessary to limit the damage of this historic pandemic?

I don’t want division, but we are divided. Some of the people I love are not vaccinated. I love them just as much, and I don’t want to be separated from them. Yet in order to protect my own life, I cannot spend time indoors with these dear ones. Their choice to forego vaccination has taken my choice to interact with them. They have made that choice for me.

I want this pandemic to be over. I want to leave my house again without wondering how many infected people are crossing my path. I want to interact with my friends and community again. But America has decided that the individual choice to forego precautions is more valuable than my safety. I don’t understand how that calculation balances out.

I know I’m not alone in wearing despair that cloaks my rage. Read what people are saying, like Amil Niazi, a parent of children under five, who writes, “I’m angry, sad, frustrated, obliterated, abandoned, but more than that and worst of all, I feel nothing.” Read these powerful words from disability justice advocate Mia Mingus:

You are not entitled to our deaths. You are not entitled to the deaths of our loved ones in the name of capital, privilege and “normal.” You are not entitled to our silence about our pain and suffering and the wet tar grief that envelops us. You are not entitled to our fear and terror at the worsening conditions and chaos of this pandemic, wondering if we will ever be able to safely leave our homes again.

The effects of this pandemic will stretch years into the future, and many books will be written about it. There will be many reckonings at all levels of public life, and continued grief in individual lives. But one thing I don’t think most people realize is that there will be a reckoning over whose lives and choices were valued, and whose lives and choices were tossed aside.

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15 Responses to Pandemic Low

  1. Rivka says:

    Well said! Thank you for articulating my feelings too.

  2. Pat Radcliff says:

    Thank you, Jennie. Again, you have been able to state
    Beautifully what so many think and feel!

  3. Anne says:

    Thank you so much Jennie. It is hard enough to live in a society that is so motivated by work and “success” when one has an illness like ME/cfs. The CDC’s response to covid has made this path even more difficult by its’ attitude towards those of us who struggle every day to lead productive, meaningful lives.

  4. Thank you SO much for this, Jennie. You speak for all of us.

  5. Laurel says:

    Well done, Jennie. I too have unvaccinated family members, who I haven’t seen for most of the pandemic. And you articulate so well what I’ve been thinking–those of us who are old enough to remember (or heard from parents and grandparents) how the country came together during World War II wonder what the heck happened to us and why we are so selfish now, against an enemy that has killed almost three times as many Americans as the war did.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Yes, this EXACTLY! I thought we would see that unity of purpose but if we had it at the beginning, it is long gone now. Interestingly, there was much resistance to rationing, black outs, and other WWII measures, so it wasn’t the case that everyone was in perfect harmony. But the sacrifices were made, and we are missing that now.

  6. Lisa M. Zaret says:

    Thanks so much for this!!

  7. Ashley says:

    I came here to thank you for your OpEd (which led me here to your blog). You said everything perfectly and gracefully.

  8. I am fortunate not to have known friends and family who are not vaccinated – everyone whose status I know is vaccinated and boosted. It must be pure hell to have people you love who think they are making a choice when, for no scientifically valid reason, they ‘choose’ to put everyone they know at risk of death.

    The same way I’m flabbergasted at staff, medical personnel, and police and military folk who ‘choose’ not to get vaccinated out of some twisted sense of ‘personal’ freedom.

    I was always taught that my freedom to do as I please stops at your nose.

    And it is terrifying to know that one person, the former chief executive of this nation, caused most of that. Millions of people worldwide owe their deaths and long covid to how the pandemic was treated from the very beginning: not as a public health crisis but as something scientists were trying to shove down the throat of an innocent population. Worldwide, because other nations look to ours.

    It boggles the mind to think of what MIGHT have happened had a person who believed in the many miracles science has already provided, and had taken a calm, adult tone, explained that to the world. And rushed to make public health measures available and a priority to everyone.

    Silly me – that’s what I expect of a president.

  9. Michael McGrath says:

    CDC Walensky’s words were clearly poorly chosen, but if you think that she is the problem (for disabled and non-disabled that do not want a Covid-19 infection), you are missing the point. The point she was making was that apparently Omicron is not as deadly as Delta and the original strains. The problem is folks that reject all the urgings of the CDC to GET VACCINATED. I would recommend more time and energy be spent considering the threat these folks pose to all of us.

  10. Denise says:

    I don’t think anyone here negates that the unvaccinated are a huge problem.
    There is more than one problem at play in the pandemic and the problem of Walensky’s usage of language demonstrates a failure to view people with disabilities/chronic illnesses as fully worthy of respect and care is a problem that has existed longer than this pandemic.

  11. Lisa Petrison says:

    Hi Jennie. I’m wondering about your suggestion that you are especially likely to die if you get Covid due to your ME/CFS, since I have been looking very hard in this community to find cases of people with this illness who have died after getting Covid (or Covid-like illness) and only have gotten two solid reports so far – one born in the 1950’s and one in the 1940’s. So those people would have been at risk because of their age, regardless of their ME/CFS.

    Of course, I have heard of many people who have had their ME/CFS symptoms get worse (at least temporarily) after getting Covid (and also many people who have had their ME/CFS symptoms get worse after getting vaccinated for Covid), but that is a different matter than what you seem to be suggesting here.

    So I am wondering what you have been hearing, with regard to reports of deaths in people with this disease.


    • Jennie Spotila says:

      As I say in the op ed, I developed additional conditions over the years. This places me at higher risk of severe disease and death than a healthy person without risk factors. We have no data on how people with ME are faring in COVID because, as far as I know, no one is collecting those data.

  12. Nancy Sadja says:

    Jennie, as usual, you have eloquently expressed my feelings. I to am “wearing despair that cloaks my rage.” As I develop more and more comorbidities along with ME/CFS, my life and choices become more and more limited. I do find it highly ironic that such a large part of the population has small or large disabling conditions, yet the overall cavalier treatment remains the same. Thank you so much for articulating the inability of even those at the highest level to understand and be inclusive of all people, not just the abled.

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