Combatting pandemic fatigue with solidarity

The legacies of groups like ACT UP can offer lessons for COVID-19 advocacy. Image via the NIH History Office / Flickr.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to remain hopeful.

COVID-19 continues to spread—in fact, the U.S. is likely in the second-largest surge of the entire pandemic right now—but we aren’t counting the majority of cases, much less taking collective health actions to prevent them. Leaders across the political spectrum have largely shrugged off any potential for new safety measures, instead focusing on business interests.

It takes a lot of effort not to simply give up, in this environment. Sometimes, at a gathering or on the New York City subway, I feel a lot of peer pressure to just take off my mask and ignore the risks. But I think about people I’ve talked to in my reporting: Long COVID advocates, people with weakened immune systems, exhausted experts, school officials working to keep their students safe, and so many others. In solidarity with them, I keep the mask on.

I thought about solidarity this week, when I read Ed Yong’s latest COVID-19 feature in The Atlantic. The story is headlined, “America is Sliding into the Long Pandemic Defeat.” But I like the subtitle better: “In the face of government inaction, the country’s best chance at keeping the crisis from spiraling relies on everyone to keep caring.”

In this piece, Yong takes readers through a history of public health’s connections to other social movements, and introduces us to people across the U.S. who are making those connections now. He talks about community health work: “It creates a bedrock of trust and solidarity, without which public health cannot operate.” And he talks about the potential for new policies and health infrastructure that could save lives, even in our current COVID-ambivalent climate.

Obviously, you should read the full story. I personally found it motivating to continue my own COVID-19 work. But, in reflection, I also wanted to share a few ideas for how to find hope and solidarity in this difficult period. This is a little outside my usual data wheelhouse, but it’s informed by my two years of reporting on (and living through) this pandemic.

Here are eight suggestions.

  • Talk to people. To friends, family members, people you meet at the grocery store, and so on. Ask them, “Did you know, we’re in a surge right now?” “Have you received your booster shot?” “Do you know where to get free rapid tests in our community, and when to use them?” The simplest questions can spark valuable conversation, in my experience.
  • Educate specifically about Long COVID. Show people the recent statistics from the Household Pulse Survey, now the best estimates we have for how many Americans are currently dealing with this condition. Talk about potential symptoms and how the condition may impact someone’s life. There is still not enough awareness in the U.S. about how COVID-19 can cause more than short-term symptoms; individual conversations can help with this.
  • Ask for the extra safety measures. If your friend is hosting a party, for example, can you ask them to instruct the guests to rapid test beforehand? If you’re attending a large meeting, can you ask the organizers about recommending masks? Even if not everybody follows the guidance, people might think about safety in a way that they hadn’t before. And vulnerable people in the room will be grateful that they didn’t need to do all the asking themselves.
  • Make connections around health. How can you build trust in public health in your community? Who are the leaders who could help advocate for measures like free testing, or would continue to encourage vaccinations when we likely need a new round of booster shots in the fall? Think about who you know, and how they can help.
  • Advocate for federal measures. This means funding for more vaccines, tests, and treatments, of course. But it also means federal air quality standards for buildings. Protections for essential workers. Disability rights, which could include (as Yong’s story notes) requiring masks when a disabled person may be present. Call your representatives, and ask them what they’re doing in these areas.
  • Learn about public health history. There are actually a lot of precedents that we can draw on for COVID-19 advocacy, Yong explains in his story. These range from the Black Panthers serving breakfast at schools to ACT UP pushing for a new paradigm in clinical trials. Reading history like this can provide ideas for current actions.
  • Reframe language around safety measures. Nobody likes a “mandate” or a “requirement.” Americans hate following rules. For this reason, I often see health experts instead using words like “safety measures,” and explaining why they work. Connecting to the language of a particular community can also help; for example, in activist spaces, I remind people that “we keep us safe” also applies to COVID-19 protections.
  • Think about the long game. What can you do to maintain energy, avoid burnout, and share your resources with others? This is another lesson from history, I think: even if I feel discouraged about a lack of change in the short-term, I remember that true paradigm shifts take a long time. Hope is a long-term practice.

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