Section: Opinion

Remain vigilant against COVID-19

I, like most, stopped caring about the coronavirus over a year ago. I didn’t know what long Covid was until I was hospitalized with stroke-like symptoms including confusion, trouble forming words and whole-body numbness after recovering from acute COVID-19. After the feeling didn’t go away, I went from doctor to doctor begging for answers, most of whom assured me that I would heal in no more than three months and need no treatment. Nine months later, I now know that I’ve developed immune system dysfunction causing persisting brain inflammation, head pressure, dysautonomia, neuropathy, heart abnormalities, joint inflammation, fatigue and more. 

When I witness the coronavirus spoken of so casually, witness people mocked and pathologized for masking, witness celebration of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO)’s assertions that this isn’t an emergency, I feel like I am living in a parallel reality. I am witnessing a virus that has disabled millions of people with no support system, treatment or belief from doctors, be reduced to nothing. The coronavirus is not just a bad cold, and despite the efforts to roll back on all guidelines and preventative measures, the Kenyon community must continue to take it seriously by testing and masking when sick, isolating for five days if positive, and listening carefully to the stories of those who have warned us about the long-lasting impacts that COVID-19 can have.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the CDC plans on dropping the five-day isolation guideline for COVID-19. Such a change implies that COVID-19 can be treated and normalized as other respiratory viruses like common colds have been. This seems exciting to most: COVID-19 isn’t dangerous anymore and we can depart from that time glitch we called the pandemic.

For those vulnerable to COVID-19, however, this news brings only fear. 

Since the beginning, people have begged us to comprehend COVID-19’s gravity, and we didn’t listen. When we became tired of caring, we called them germaphobes and paranoids. When it was no longer a virtue signal to wear a mask, we too became anti-maskers. 

The majority of blame lies on health officials and institutions like the CDC who transmit a specific knowledge about COVID-19 as treatable and harmless as an incontrovertible fact. It’s exceedingly important now to question them and listen to the testimonies of those for whom COVID-19 is a chronic illness.

Kenyon is isolated enough that we can, to some extent, prevent surges, and to a greater extent, practice the basic act of care for those we share the air with. This means accommodating those for whom illness means more than a few days of missed class, for whom healing is circular rather than linear, for whom medical care is unaffordable or who, when the CDC’s plans go into effect, will not be accommodated by their employers for missing work. 

As anti-masking sentiment grows at Kenyon, whether it be through the refusal to mask when asked to or the questioning of those who choose to, there are some common misconceptions that I want to address: 

1. COVID-19 is treatable and cannot cause serious harm. I hope the symptoms I listed above do justice to the virus’s potential long-lasting impact on the immune system and body as a whole, making it anything but a cold. There is no specific treatment or explanation for long Covid, so most long-haulers rely on their own research and self-treatment. 

2.  If you’re not immunocompromised, taking COVID-19 precaution is unnecessary. Anyone can get long Covid, even without preexisting conditions. But more importantly, this logic is underscored by a pervasive individualism that regards vulnerable people as disposable. Kenyon touts values of community care, yet hearing this rationale so persistently makes it certain to immunocompromised people that your convenience is more important than their health. 

3. Organizations like the CDC/WHO are made up of medical professionals and therefore are truth-sayers who can go without critique. People with chronic conditions often form well-founded wariness of medical professionals due to the continuous dismissal that emerges in response to an unexplainable illness. This partially guides my scrutiny of these institutions, but more generally, it is guided by the need to remain critical of the underlying incentives guiding their minimizing of COVID-19: there are costs of giving workers time off, funding testing and building networks of care for those whose bodies the structures of our workplaces/schools do not accommodate. I’m encouraging you to apply the same critical lens to the CDC and WHO that you would to all other government-funded institutions.

4. But 2020 made me sad,  I don’t want to go back to that. I too sorely remember the quiet periods and plastic barriers of the beginning of the pandemic, and I think we have the resources to mitigate COVID-19 surges without having to bring all of this back. But it is an immense privilege to choose when to get tired of a pandemic. That feeling of fear and isolation is one that immunocompromised people never got to leave behind. 

This is a world in which living with any kind of illness always comes with the dread that your communities can choose to dismiss, deny and forget you. But with disappearing guidelines, there are easy first steps we can take on our own. You can track Gambier COVID-19 wastewater levels. You can order four coronavirus tests for free via USPS — testing when sick should remain regular practice. There are free masks in Peirce Dining Hall — if you’re feeling sick, wear one! With spring break coming up, you can mask up at the airport and test yourself when coming back. It is imperative to resist narratives that treat COVID-19 as nothing other than a cold and to take seriously the calls of vulnerable people to critique the institutions that abandon them.

Rebecca Renner ’24 is an English major from New York. She can be reached at renner1@kenyon.edu.

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