As we approach 1 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.
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.
So how do we return to normal when, as President JoeBiden 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.
Victoria A. Brownworth is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this column first appeared.