Let’s Direct Our Anger About COVID Toward the Real Enemy. Spoiler alert–it’s not each other.
About a month ago, Philadelphia-based socialist activist and writer Mindy Isser posted a since-deleted tweet which in part read, “covid is both serious and not ‘over’ but i’m not sure what the point is of all the fear-mongering posts about how permanently sick you’ll be if you get it. most of us have already gotten it!” While the tweet is no longer available on the platform, a litany of replies from a mixture of activists, high-profile media professionals (such as the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz), and members of the Extremely Online remain. They include accusations that Isser is an ableist, an anti-vaxxer, an anti-masker, a fake socialist, and even a eugenicist; outcries for the Philly Democratic Socialists of America chapter Isser works with to discipline her or formally expel her; and personal attacks on her, her husband and their ability to parent their five-month-old.
I’m going to say something that may be controversial: I have a hard time believing Mindy Isser is a eugenicist. The National Human Genome Research Institute defines a eugenicist as someone who believes they can “perfect human beings and eliminate so-called social ills through genetics and heredity. They [believe] the use of methods such as involuntary sterilization, segregation and social exclusion [will] rid society of individuals deemed by them to be unfit.” If you don’t like the government’s definition, Merriam-Webster defines eugenics as “the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition.” I feel there is a crucial distinction between white supremacist bio-fascists and Twitter users who warn against the harm of fearmongering.
My stake in this conversation is primarily discursive in nature; as a college student who barely understands biology, I cannot even begin to define the proper way to handle COVID from a public health policy perspective, but what I can do, as a sociologist and digital scholar, is point out a pattern of aggression online that borders on abuse and is also entirely unproductive for the objectives of the public health movement.
The online discourse surrounding COVID mitigation (or rather, the lack thereof) and the often-ignored pandemic has completely broken down into nuance-less shouting and name-calling, with no room for empathy or an understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this public health crisis. There are essentially two dominant factions with few in between (Mindy Isser and yours truly being two of those few). One faction believes that the pandemic is over, or at least functionally over, and that mitigation tactics such as masking, surveillance testing, limiting capacity in rooms, and avoiding indoor events are no longer necessary or effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. This faction tends to believe vaccines are effective enough at mitigation. This view accounts for a majority of liberal Americans and is reflected in the policy choices made by Tufts (not all of which I agree with). It’s important to clarify that this group is distinguishable from the early COVID deniers of the far right; the group I am referring to understands COVID was harmful and devastating, but believes it is time to move on.
Then there is the other faction, which seems to be a very vocal and Extremely Online minority: the group that remains highly fearful of catching COVID and essentially still lives their lives as if in the pre-vaccine era. Many people belonging to this group are immunocompromised, disabled, or live with someone who is at a higher health risk, and it is completely understandable they may feel a heightened level of anxiety given the failure of the government at every juncture to meaningfully halt this pandemic. However, some members of this group, who may or may not be medically vulnerable in this way, have taken it upon themselves to police the behaviors of everyone around them, as well as spread extreme rhetoric online that is incompatible with public health guidance. This sub-group has a tendency to read and share every study they come across that claims COVID causes irreversible and permanently disabling damage to the body, even for vaccinated individuals (sometimes citing studies that are in direct contrast with other research). This group also has a predilection for assuming malicious intent of anyone who employs a different strategy than themselves. They tend to take their frustration out on those people through online harassment that borders on abuse. This is who Isser is addressing in her tweet—and who has now designated Isser as a eugenicist.
I was apprehensive to approach this conversation for two reasons: One, I do not like the idea of denying anyone—and particularly a group that is frequently marginalized by both public policy and society writ large, such as the disability justice community—the right to speak their truth and vent about their frustrations and anxieties living in a world that appears to have functionally abandoned them. I want to be very clear: I do not want my argument to be misconstrued as an attempt to silence disability justice advocates. COVID has devastated humankind in ways we still cannot begin to fathom and, like all epidemics, has disproportionately impacted those who already live at the margins. People should feel empowered to speak about that anxiety and frustration without fear.
The second reason for my apprehension is also why I knew this piece needed to be written: I feared the Isser treatment. Wading into the COVID conversation in this fashion opens you up to an onslaught of accusations regarding the moral value of one’s character. In simpler language, I worried bringing up COVID and arguing for more empathy would result in me being accused of being a eugenicist. That is the very nature of how this debate now functions, and it is unsustainable.
Like many students at Tufts, I work a part-time job to support myself. Mine happens to be at a local restaurant in Davis Square. Only one staff member in our entire restaurant wears a mask at work, and she is a member of the back-of-house team. The restaurant I work in is loud and crowded, and I already struggle to hear and be heard by my customers without the additional sound diffusion of a mask. Staff cannot reasonably be expected to perform their jobs well while masking, not to mention that customers come to this restaurant to eat and drink; it is unreasonable to expect that the diners inside will mask at all times. I am also a tipped-wage worker; if people do not choose to dine at my restaurant, I will not make enough money to pay my rent in the absence of government assistance that quickly ran dry at the very beginning of the pandemic. This assistance will also likely not ever return, given the fact that the Biden administration has ended the state of emergency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Is it fair to call me and my coworkers eugenicists if we have to work in this restaurant, in these conditions, to support ourselves financially? Is it fair to call my customers eugenicists for dining at my restaurant when information about COVID risk is so amorphous, inconclusive, and impossible to measure?
This is a personal risk I have chosen for myself, as someone who has had COVID, received five vaccines including the recent bivalent booster, and has a small stash of rapid tests. I also have decided the personal risk of attending concerts, dining in restaurants and bars, and returning to my usual rhythm of socializing (with some minor changes) is an appropriate risk level for me. I made this decision after carefully weighing the risks to myself, my loved ones, and my community, which includes disabled friends, neighbors, and my elderly father who turns 70 in a month. I also made this decision after many conversations with people I interact with who are at higher risk of complications from COVID and who also have returned to a semi-normal rhythm of social interactions for the purpose of preserving their mental and emotional health.
That said, I deeply sympathize and empathize with people who have a higher standard of risk than me and try to accommodate them when I can. I mask in most public areas that are not Tufts’ campus or my place of work (the MBTA, grocery stores, pharmacies, and even when I enter counter service restaurants that I don’t plan to eat at, if I see the workers masking); I double-mask when I am experiencing cold or flu symptoms and avoid socializing when I am ill or may have had a recent COVID exposure; I take a rapid test before traveling. I recently was working at my restaurant during a midday shift with few customers and a couple came in wearing KN95s. I asked if they’d prefer to be seated on the other side of the restaurant, away from where some diners were already seated, and when they said yes I additionally offered to mask while serving them, which they politely declined but indicated gratitude for the offer. They told me they have two six-month-old twins at home and that this was their first time dining out since the pandemic began. As they left, they mentioned to the hostess that they deeply appreciated my acknowledgment of their risk mitigation and willingness to accommodate them.
This kind of empathetic interaction and nuanced approach is not only replicable but in my view should be the standard. We cannot get through this ongoing pandemic as a community if the two factional ideologies to choose from are “COVID is over and I no longer care,” or “if you ever dine in a restaurant, you are a eugenicist.” We have to remember that, above all, our fellow citizens are not the enemy here. The government mismanaged this pandemic from day one, beginning with Donald Trump lying to the American people about how severe the threat of COVID-19 was, then failing to execute a national masking, testing, and vaccination strategy, and continuing that failure under President Biden by cutting corners, changing policy after receiving pressure from Big Business, and rolling back effective COVID mitigation strategies to appeal to corporate America. Both administrations had no solution from the very beginning, besides turning people against each other and, in true American maverick fashion, convincing us that COVID mitigation is some sort of impossible-to-negotiate personal choice configuration that is completely incompatible with public health.
In any case, it’s a bit too late for us to reverse that negligence.
What we can do is treat each other better, do our part to mask in public spaces to make them more accessible for people with higher risk levels, and also recognize that some personal choices to return to socializing are not a reflection of moral values or a disregard for the disabled and chronically ill, but a desperate and understandable desire for human connection.