7. 12. 2022

We (Still) Need a Left COVID Politics that Doesn’t Abandon People to Get Sick

Daniel Sarah Karasik

It’s genuinely awesome that Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) is calling for a federal Long COVID strategy. Awesome and necessary: the rosiest recent estimates predict at least around 4% of Omicron infections will lead to chronic health problems, a significant fraction of them debilitating, and there have been millions upon millions of Omicron infections throughout the world’s many countries that are currently declaring the pandemic to be over. Not just infections but also countless reinfections, and emerging research suggests the risk of Long COVID doesn’t decrease (at best) as you catch COVID again and again: it’s a roll of the dice each time. We don’t know how post-viral symptoms will progress over months and years, but it’s clear that many of us will experience new disability, and need new care, as a result of our new normal in which repeat infection is highly likely if you want to have an offline social life or keep your job in your mask-free workplace. So a strategy to deal with that toll of infirmity, like the NDP is proposing, makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make sense is the absence of any plausible strategy to keep people from getting infected in the first place. 

What the fuck is going on? The broad strokes of the story are well-known: the first Omicron variant appeared in late 2021, elites in many highly vaccinated countries saw that Omicron’s per-infection hospitalization and death rates were lower than previous variants’ – ignoring the fact that Omicron’s hyper-infectiousness would lead foreseeably to horrifying overall death tolls in Canada as elsewhere – and a combination of resignation (we can’t beat this) and violent optimism (everyone will be infected, so everyone will be immune) led governments to preside over tacit and explicit policies of mass infection. Yet if even the fully vaccinated are now on track to be reinfected perhaps multiple times a year, and each infection carries at least a 4% chance of leading to new chronic illness, it’s hard to understand from what possible perspective this situation might be sustainable for anyone – and especially for the many working-class people who are already or will be newly disabled. Capitalist short-termism seeds its own crises; businesses drop mask policies to assert we’re now “post-pandemic” and spur consumption, then find themselves short-staffed when workers are out sick en masse with COVID. The organized right builds its base by denouncing COVID protections as tyranny, attacks on individual freedom. But we might expect the institutions of the left, including Canada’s ostensible labour party, to tell the plain truth that the pandemic is ongoing and needs an ongoing political response – even if that truth is polarizing.

The current official pandemic narrative, the story that infection with COVID has become safe enough for most people, is a lie, and denouncing that lie and articulating an alternative vision remains an opportunity for the left. Policies that help people once they’ve already been (re)infected, like the NDP’s proposed Long COVID strategy, are absolutely necessary. They can be especially effective when the institutions proposing them also dedicate resources to mobilizing the public in support of them, including mobilizations in the streets. But a left movement against vicious capitalist COVID politics can’t stop there. As the vital if critically under-resourced Suppress The Virus and Suppress The Virus Now campaigns in Manitoba and Ontario argued last year, the left’s foundational public health commitment during the ongoing pandemic should be to fight to prevent every COVID infection we can, because life is precious and quality of life is precious, even as we insist in the same breath that disabled life with altered quality of life is also precious. 

What might that commitment look like in practice? In the absence of new vaccines that better block transmission of the virus, respirators such as the N95, N99, and P100 are critical tools. N95+ masks should be free and available everywhere; we should call for their use to be standard in indoor and crowded outdoor workplaces, as a matter of workplace health and safety, with financial consequences for employers who fail to guarantee their workers’ well-being in this way. Left movements, parties, social change organizations, and high-profile leaders should consistently model the use of N95+ masks in public, including in busy outdoor settings like rallies and marches where significant physical distancing isn’t possible.

The institutions of the left – “we,” at our points of greatest organizational amplification – should call for employers to be held financially liable for poor ventilation in workplaces, a policy that would incentivize swift retrofits. Those institutions should also call for rapid antigen tests (RATs) to be free and widely available; for PCR testing to be at least as accessible as HIV testing is today; and for community COVID data to be posted regularly online, so the public can assess risk. Rapid tests aren’t sensitive enough to be our only or primary line of defence against infection, and are certainly no replacement for high-quality masks; we should call for public investment in new technologies like COVID breathalyzer tests that offer greater accuracy and quicker results than RATs. But we should also use every effective tool that’s available in a given moment, rather than pretending we no longer need those tools because the virus is no longer a threat. 

At the same time, we should call for urgent public investment in the development of new vaccines that more effectively curtail viral transmission. Along those lines, we should demand close study of Cuba’s remarkable success with the vaccines it developed itself, an experience that’s turned the island state into perhaps the only populous territory in the world where COVID appears now to be effectively suppressed without recurring state-managed social shutdown measures, as in China. While there’s still limited published research into the Omicron-era efficacy of Cuba’s Soberana and Abdala vaccines, which rely on protein subunit conjugate platforms used already in Haemophilus influenzae and Hepatitis B vaccines respectively, Cuba’s epidemic curve suggests it’s escaped much of the carnage that comparably highly vaccinated countries, such as Portugal, have suffered this year. As of the time of writing, Cuba hasn’t recorded a single COVID death in nearly two months, and has a seven-day average of around 40 daily COVID cases – in a country of more than 11 million people, more populous than Portugal or Sweden. 

It’ll take careful investigation to determine how much of that success is the result of Cuban vaccines’ efficacy and how much can be attributed to other causes, like the fact that Cuba has vaccinated 95% of children ages 2-18, a much higher juvenile vaccination rate than most other countries’. But either way, we should celebrate the Cuban experience as strong evidence that a country condemning millions of its residents to Long COVID is a political decision, not inevitable. And we should underline that the Global North’s COVID vaccine strategy has saved lives but hasn’t proven to be the hoped-for exit from the pandemic, and mitigations like high-quality masks will remain necessary until we secure vaccines that offer more reliable protection against COVID infection and its too-often devastating long-term effects.

We mustn’t restrict ourselves to pre-2020 political frameworks out of fear that pandemic-specific demands like N95 mask policies won’t be immediately popular in our communities. Maybe they won’t be. “Defund The Police doesn’t poll well,” we were told in the face of a historic mass movement calling for the defunding and abolition of the police. Substantive trans flourishing isn’t exactly a top concern for most people. We hold those political lines not because they’re likely to win the immediate approval of the entire working class, but because they’re just, and because they stand to serve the class as a whole: protecting – rather than opportunistically sacrificing or scapegoating – its most vulnerable members, and targeting its key enemies. For those same reasons, we should rally around COVID policies that aim to keep public life accessible to already-disabled people, and to prevent millions more people from developing avoidable new health problems. 

Those struggles complement, and can in no way replace, the ongoing fight for increased disability assistance rates and employer-paid sick days. It’s as part of that holistic vision that the NDP’s proposed Long COVID strategy is an important measure. The left stands only to gain by representing a clear, systematic alternative to the deadly pandemic denialism to which both liberalism and the far right continue to be committed. We’re still being lied to, and the costs of the lie are catastrophic and still mounting. Tons of people know it, and are looking for a political outlet for their rage and fear and flickering hope. Instead of courting folks who are “over” a pandemic that isn’t over, what if we were to advance a left politics that not only demands that the sick be well cared for, but also makes the polarizing, countercultural claim that in the face of a fast-mutating viral threat, nobody should be abandoned to get sick?

Daniel Sarah Karasik (they/them) is the managing editor of Midnight Sun and a member of the network Artists for Climate & Migrant Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty (ACMJIS). Their newest book is the poetry collection Plenitude.