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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

The Return to Normalcy

February 16, 2022 The Philadelphia Gay News

The media mantra is relentless: It’s time to get back to “normal.” The surge in COVID cases wrought by the super-transmissible Omicron variant, which saw as many as a million new cases each day in January and more hospitalizations and deaths than at any point in the pandemic, is waning. In the past two weeks there are fewer new cases (about 220,000 daily) and hospitalizations are fewer in some states, though deaths continue to hover around 2,500 per day.

COVID-fatigue has swept the nation and with it the ending of mask and vaccine mandates. Pennsylvania was the first state to end its mask mandates as a result of a state Supreme Court ruling December 21. Other states followed suit with some immediacy.

While CDC guidelines continue to assert masks should be worn indoors in most settings to combat the spread of the virus, only four states and Washington D.C. still require masks for most indoor settings, though some of those mandates are set to expire. Philadelphia relaxed its mask mandates on February 16, the last city in the region to do so.

Taking off the masks is, we’ve been told, the key step back into normal pre-COVID life, and who among us doesn’t long for that?

But how do we return to a life that was without acknowledging the life we have now? At the current death rate, the U.S. will hit one million deaths from COVID around the end of February or beginning of March. That grim milestone will coincide with the anniversary of the day everything stopped: March 13, 2020. That was when cities and states issued emergency restrictions to all aspects of “normal” life. Workplaces closed, restaurants and bars closed to in-person dining, theaters went dark, and schools went to online learning. Only “essential services” like supermarkets and other essential retailers stayed open. Public transit slowed. Cars were off the roads.

And hospitals began to fill and fill and fill. All we reported on was COVID because our lives revolved around fear of catching the deadly virus.

But then, as now, there was a disconnect. While we were home feeling the terrors of the pandemic personally, the Trump administration was pretending it wasn’t that bad. In March 2020, Donald Trump announced the virus would be gone by Easter. Later, we would hear tapes between journalist Bob Woodward and Trump from February and March which made clear that Trump knew that would never happen and that he was deliberately hiding the breadth of the danger from the American people.

As we approach one million deaths, we know how deadly COVID has been. But what have we learned from these two years?

Not much, it seems.

As people spent days, weeks and even months in the hospital recovering from their near-death experiences of COVID, we have not learned that the U.S. needs universal healthcare for everyone and that massive medical bills can only be paid by the super rich.

We also haven’t learned that our healthcare system is broken and over-loaded. Nor have we learned that American healthcare is fundamentally racist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic and that most women, Black people and LGBT+ people cannot get appropriate or even adequate care from anybody, much less from healthcare workers who understand and appreciate their individual needs related to race, gender and identity.

We haven’t learned that upwards of 2 to 7 million Americans of the 79 million (as of February 14, 2022) who have gotten COVID since 2020 have lasting disabling illness from the virus. This presents as long-COVID syndrome or attacks on various organs: kidneys, lungs, heart. A massive study released in the publication Nature shows a long-term, substantial rise in risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, after a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Researchers found that rates of many conditions, such as heart failure and stroke, were substantially higher in people who had recovered from COVID-19 than in similar people who hadn’t had the disease.

“It doesn’t matter if you are young or old, it doesn’t matter if you smoked or you didn’t,” said study co-author Ziyad Al-Aly of Washington University in St. Louis. “The risk was there.”

And yet, in Philadelphia, firefighters are fighting the city on vaccine mandates, and nationally, the leading cause of sudden death for police officers is COVID.

So how do we return to normalcy when, as President Biden notes, there are empty chairs at the table from those in our families and friend circles who are dead from the disease.

The landscape of my 20s was the AIDS pandemic. I don’t remember how many funerals and memorial services I attended, but I remember the one where I couldn’t stop crying for two days afterward that told me I couldn’t attend any more. I lost two of my closest male friends, the writers Assotto Saint and Darrell Yates Rist.

In those years I was angry all the time. Angry and heartbroken and fighting for the lives of my friends. Throughout the pandemic I have written well over a hundred stories on COVID for this paper and others.

We learned from the AIDS pandemic, or at least the LGBT+ community did. We learned about unequal treatment and discrimination and lack of research dollars. We learned that we would literally have to lie down in the streets in die-ins and be arrested in civil disobedience actions to get the attention of people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, a panoply of politicians, and two presidents.

What we didn’t do was pretend AIDS was over once the worst of the massive hemorrhaging of young men ceased. What we didn’t do was dishonor our dead. What we didn’t do was pretend it wasn’t really that bad. What we didn’t do was throw out all that we had learned about protecting ourselves and each other from getting sick and dying.

Let’s not do that about COVID. Let’s not dishonor our dead or ignore those still very ill and disabled from long-COVID. Let’s not pretend that we never needed masks and vaccine mandates or that we might not need them again, soon.

We are all tired of COVID. But just as we learned that safe sex was the new normal in a world with HIV where you had to assume any partner was infected, we need to learn that being vaccinated and boosted is essential to any hope for normalcy, because anyone close to you could be infected.

Maybe it is, as the CDC suggests, too soon to take off the masks, at least until we learn the lesson from one million dead of why we had to wear them in the first place.

Maybe then we can return to our new normal.

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