I did not want my first big piece of 2024 to be an op-ed about COVID.
The idea came when our co-founder Marke forwarded me a reader’s letter imploring 48 Hills for more COVID coverage. The letter mentioned me always bringing it up in my theater reviews. I started the first draft of this piece right before the site posted Galen Sanger’s heartbreaking Long COVID essay. After reading it, I figured anything I said would just be superfluous.
But as I write this piece, I have a tab open in Firefox for a MissionLocal article about SF shuttering vaccine sites. When I caught COVID last year, my life was saved by those free resources. Since those protections have vanished, the US has been in an unbroken wave of infections not seen since the start of Omicron onset.
Folks like Galen tell a frighteningly common story, but the powers that be continue to feign surprise to find that “Fuck around” is still followed by “find out.” Being COVID-safe is like being Juno from Beetlejuice: no matter how clearly you explain things the football team, they remain oblivious. Eventually, they slink back into your office and reluctantly admit “Coach, I don’t think we survived the crash.” All you can do is stare at them and ask “How did you guess?”
But here’s the thing: Just because it’s become harder to find and report COVID info doesn’t mean we should stop. Quite the contrary: I consider it my duty as a Progressive, a journalist, and a citizen of the world. If any of those terms apply to you, then you should be equally dedicated to the truth.
“But where to find it?” I hear you ask.
The first place would be the free weekly Pandemic Round-Ups by SF’s own Violet Blue (who recently relocated to New Zealand to study and write about the early-pandemic response there). She’ll be the first to tell you that she didn’t want to still be writing Pandemic Round-Ups after four years, but now they’re amongst the most reliable aggregations of scrutinized COVID info after major resources simply stopped tracking.
Exactly how are experts tracking? Wastewater levels. Yes, really. Through sources like Biobot Analytics, scientists have to shovel through shit just to get accurate numbers that used omnipresent. What they’re finding is that people are literally shitting out COVID in the highest levels in years. But instead of finding reliable treatments and preventions, people are turning to anti-vaxxer morons like Joe Rogan who tell them to eat the horse paste Ivermectin (which does absolutely nothing for COVID) and to swallow hydroxychloroquine (which will likely kill you).
The reason infections and deaths began genuinely dropping from 2021-22 was because most of the resources—particularly vaccines and Paloxvid anti-virals—were free. This not only saved countless lives, the free distribution proved that a government-based healthcare plan is what the United States desperately needs.
But that was then. Now, one has to pay $140 out-of-pocket for a vaccine you’re only allowed you to get once a year, despite their waning after six months. (When I got my pre-infection booster, I was denied service at all my favorite SF clinics before I found one that gave it to me by “accident.” Getting my pre-Thanksgiving jab of Novavax was a similar obstacle course.) “We have the tools,” Biden tells us. He just won’t sign the checks for them anymore. Meanwhile, he gets top-of-the-line treatment and won’t even step into a room unless each and every person has been through a full, Secret Service-approved medical screening.
The pandemic is only “over” for the rich and powerful. The rest of us proletariat are supposed to head back to the mines.
And it’s not just politicians who are ignore COVID as it continues to wreak havoc; it’s also mainstream media and entertainment. Another thing Violet Blue and I have in common is that we’ve both written articles about the blind eye Hollywood has turned towards COVID. For them, it either never existed or was so brief that it’s only mentioned in passing. Hell, I watched a digital screener of Saltburn this past week and nearly fell out of my chair upon seeing an extra (a barista) wearing a mask—one of the two prettiest things in the entire film. (The other being Jacob Elordi’s face in soft-focus.)
It certainly doesn’t help matters that Screen Actors Guild president Fran Drescher, who acquiesced to a severely compromised studio agreement just to end last year’s strike, opposes any and all COVID safety measures for film and TV production.
Ignoring such a widespread public health crisis is bad enough on its own. It hurts all the more for us folks of a certain age (especially San Franciscans), because we’ve seen this very thing before. How many ‘80s movies mentioned HIV/AIDS? You can probably count them all on one hand. I’d like to say that future generations will criticize this era’s similar dismissal of COVID, but my fear is that there’ll be so many stories like Galen’s that there won’t be that many people left to tell our story to future generations. They’ll just binge episodes of …And Just Like That, where “the whole pandemic thing” is only briefly alluded to once, and in the past tense.
Which brings up another point…
Earlier today, I read about AJLT actor Sara Ramírez possibly being released from the show. Why? Because they spoke out in support of Palestine. Yes, really. The last three months have seen US tax dollars finance Israel’s brutal ethnic cleansing of Gaza, but public figures who even whisper the word “ceasefire” are losing their jobs left-and-right. You’ll recall, the same thing happened with Viet Nam, the Gulf War, and the bullshit post-9/11 “War on Terror,” amongst other conflicts.
I say again that it’s our Progressive duty to take a stand against Israel’s attempted genocide the same way we stand against police brutality, rape culture, and wealth inequality – because those things are all wrong. That’s why I’ve spent those past three months protesting with pro-Palestinian folks like myself. (I almost got run over by the presidential motorcade during APEC.) It’s why I personally spoke in front of SF’s Board of Supervisors to get them to pass a ceasefire resolution. (Which they did, only for London Breed to publicly lash out against them and us.)
When I first arrived at City Hall (already masked and wearing safety glasses), I took a photo of two fellow protestors passing out COVID masks to folks headed inside. One was pulling them out of a bag with a self-made sign that read “Masks protect us from sickness and surveillance.”
That’s what I love about activism: fighting the good fight and actions by fellow protestors that make me feel seen. That was one of them.
We pro-Palestinian activists have gotten “ceasefire” resolutions passed all over the world. We COVID activists have been so tireless in our push for safety that countless medical institutions are reinstating their mask polices—that’s because of us.
As loud as the powerful people shout at us from their ivory towers, we have proof that our collect power can’t be ignored. This isn’t the time to stop activism for COVID for the same reason we shouldn’t give up our support for the people of Palestine. In both cases, too many lives are at stake. Turning a blind eye to either issue is immoral and unconscionable.
I’ve recently gotten back into directing. Since the start of the pandemic, my theatre work has mostly been limited to seeing and reviewing shows. Directing this piece has given me a wonderful insight into how local, indie theatre—which needs more support than ever—operates during a still-ongoing pandemic. The company I’m working with takes COVID safety seriously, requiring everyone test before entering a meeting or rehearsal—including having tests on-hand to screen onsite. And everyone has to mask. (The actors can only forego masks during late-stage rehearsals.)
Yet, this great company also had to scale back their audience safety requirements, making masks optional except for Enhanced Safety Performances. They would have kept them as strong, but when you don’t have million-dollar donors, you’re forced to make painful decisions in order to hold onto the already-dwindling audiences.
They shouldn’t be in that position. Nor should any citizen wake up in the middle of the night to the realization that an avoidable infection left them with lasting disability, which our government won’t pay for because they’re funding the bombing of schools and hospitals on the other side of the world.
Let me say it again so that there’s no doubt: as Progressives and Leftists, it’s our duty to confront these injustices. That starts with talking about police brutality, abortion rights, homelessness, and more. It means speaking up for unions. It means talking about our tax dollars funding Palestinian genocide.
And yes, it means talking about COVID.