I’ve noticed a recent linguistic shift in discussions about Covid-19.
We situate our present in the “post-pandemic” era. We talk about our “return to normalcy.” In doing this, we delegate Covid to the past tense. We assume and imply it has been eradicated like smallpox, that vaccines have pushed Covid into history, and, as we do so, we ignore that Covid cases have been rising precipitously.
I have spent my whole life enmeshed in liberal communities, as a New Jerseyan and a student at Amherst College. My friends and family members have never denied the pandemic’s existence, or attempted to use ivermectin to manage Covid symptoms. Yet, many of them now see Covid as a relic — a dark time in the world’s history, to be sure, but a chapter that has closed.
Amherst, it seems, has adopted a similar position. The college no longer requires masks anywhere, even the health center, and has ended its on-site PCR testing program. To-go boxes have been restricted to students with accommodations, creating a more crowded dining hall highly conducive to the spread of the coronavirus. Mandates have softened into recommendations, and public concern about the disease has been cast aside in favor of other issues du jour.
In all fairness, this reflects the mainstream attitude about Covid. On a national level, President Joe Biden has declared that “the pandemic is over.” The public health emergency designation has ended. On a local level, I have watched as the few Amherst students who express their concerns about the pandemic are dismissed as paranoid hypochondriacs by fellow members of this community. The most vulnerable members of our community — disabled and immunocompromised people, to name a few — have been cast aside with gross, state-sanctioned belittlement of their lives. “Covid is just a cold,” many abled people have said — erasing the lives of immunocompromised people who have been impacted in devastating ways.
I still wear a mask. Throughout the earlier days of the pandemic, I wore my mask religiously — and while I have relaxed my own personal protocol, I continue to wear either a KN95 or N95 mask in crowded indoor spaces, including classrooms. In my classes, I am the only one who wears a mask. It is, of course, a personal choice to wear a mask, but being the only one making this choice to protect myself can be isolating.
While I am taking the steps to protect myself, there is only so much as an individual that I can feasibly do. When I take my mask off to eat at the dining hall, or in class to take a sip from my water bottle — I cannot rely on the Covid-preventative behaviors of others to ensure my own safety.
People are still dying of Covid. Some people who have “recovered” from their initial onslaught of the disease still suffer from long Covid, leading to additional diagnoses of Lyme disease, shingles, and herpes. Eighty percent of people with long Covid struggle with daily activities. Marginalized communities suffer disproportionately from the disease.
I understand and empathize with the fact that people believe we need to “learn to live with Covid,” as realistically, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But I see learning to live with Covid as taking small, simple precautions — such as mask-wearing, especially in places like hospitals, as well as in classrooms and in Val — in order to minimize the devastating toll Covid can take on communities. Even mask-wearing when feeling sick (regardless of the sickness) is a small change with a big impact. As epidemiology professor Ellie Murray suggests, “What we should be doing is setting up our system so that we can passively control COVID in the background, and individual people don’t have to worry about what they should, or should not, do.” If we change our systems to be more accommodating of high-risk and Covid-conscious people, the onus is shifted from the individual to the structural. The college should recognize the reality of the situation, and act accordingly.
Until that happens, there are still things that people can do. Personally, I want to emphasize that my life is not meaningfully hampered by wearing a mask. While I have sensory issues that make me hyper-cognizant of certain textures, I find that most masks are relatively unobtrusive — and if I desperately want to take my mask off, I can usually just go outside. I buy floral masks online to accessorize to make the mundane a little more stylish. I don’t think of my mask as a hindrance, but rather a shield that prevents a nasty disease and an unwanted quarantine. I encourage others to join me.