Man in church wearing a face mask gripping a pew and praying.

In Defense of Extending the U.S. Pandemic Response

Three years after it was declared a national emergency, the U.S. is ending its COVID-19 pandemic response, the final step in the “back to normalcy” playbook the country’s been pushing since 2020. On April 10, the Biden administration signed a bill ending the national emergency, with the remaining public health emergency set to expire on May 11 (CNN). Earlier this year, House Republicans passed the Pandemic is Over Act, which would end the public health emergency as well (Congress).

More than 1.13 million people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, including 1,327* in the past week, and it continues to be a leading cause of death in the U.S. (CDC). The emergency declarations allowed the federal government to step up and waive or modify requirements in various programs and institutions to support the country’s economic and health systems and bolster already-weakened social safety nets, including eviction moratoria, free school meals and enhanced SNAP benefits, free COVID-19 testing-related services and vaccinations, expanded and extended unemployment benefits, job-protected sick leave, and increased Medicaid funding, eligibility, and coverage protections. Many of the emergency measures have expired or are phasing out what has been a lifeline for millions of Americans who were already struggling pre-pandemic. 

TAKE ACTION

• Support campaigns and sign petitions to reinstate mask mandates in healthcare settings and free Covid-19 testing, including in New YorkMassachusettsWashingtonMaryland, and California.

• Support organizations like Marked by COVID, the People’s CDCSenior and Disability Action, and COVID-19 Longhauler Advocacy Project.

• Read the stories on the Rooted in Rights, and the #NoBodyIsDisposable and #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy hashtags by disabled people who have shared their experiences during the pandemic.

The latest is Medicaid disenrollment resuming, which is expected to cause 14 million people to lose health insurance, a third of whom will be Latine and 15% being Black (MedicaidASPE). Since February 2020, enrollment in Medicaid, which provides health insurance coverage to low-income adults, children, pregnant people, older adults, and disabled people, has increased by 33.7%, causing the uninsured rate to drop (Medicaid). A loss of health insurance coverage can be a life or death difference, even with a short coverage gap. And amid a pandemic seen as a “mass-disabling event” where about 15 million people are currently experiencing long COVID symptoms, losing coverage from the nation’s largest payer of long-term care services will have devastating effects (MedicaidCDC). 

Yet, it is one of many inactions by U.S. officials to remove themselves from the pandemic response, reverting to providing the bare minimum of service, now that they—in a rare bipartisan agreement—determined that the country has “broken COVID’s grip” (White House). 

Ceasing federal requirements and funding has also meant more individualized responsibility and the privatization of the COVID-19 response (KFF Health News). The once publicly-funded vaccines, treatments, and tests will no longer be subsidized, meaning the ability to receive care and mitigate the virus’s spread depends on one’s capacity to pay or even access an inequitable healthcare system. Discontinuing statewide masking and vaccination requirements in healthcare and other high-risk settings means leaving it to the discretion of facilities, often to the detriment of patients forced into making an “impossible choice” of avoiding care or risk getting COVID-19 (Cal Matters). It also means the end of reliable tracking and mitigation messaging, which is important for warning about potential surges and protecting those most vulnerable from harm—a population the U.S. hasn’t been interested in.

From the beginning, messaging on COVID-19 downplayed its severity by saying that the virus only posed a threat to older adults, people with chronic illness, and disabled and immunocompromised people. Instead of mobilizing legislators to act and protect the lives of those they declared vulnerable, it was an excuse for their inaction. Policy and public messaging throughout the pandemic have been ableist and consistent with eugenicist ideology. It explains why state and federal-level officials at the start of the pandemic were content to sacrifice the elderly and those with serious health risks for the sake of restarting the economy, why lifting mitigation protocols and rationing COVID-19 supplies meant sacrificing people with chronic illnesses and the disabled community, why the deaths of those considered to have “low quality of life” or “unwell to begin with” is “encouraging news,” and why now the U.S. is content with abandoning its pandemic response. 

The ones who will be impacted by ending these emergency declarations and programs are the marginalized people the U.S. has repeatedly told and shown us they don’t care about. This abandonment is not exclusive to or the result of the pandemic slowing down. It’s how the government operates: providing unequal levels of support and protection, or “organized abandonment,” then using criminalization and policing for the fallout, or “organized violence” (Death Panel). (Read more about this framework and how it expands to housing, the disability community, and more here). 

Two things became clear these past few years of the pandemic: how well this country could work when leaders have a vested interest in ensuring people have the basic necessities to live and how uninterested they are in extending that quality of life to all. Pre-pandemic life is not something to aspire to, it meant children went into debt for school lunches, and millions of people didn’t have healthcare. So as the U.S. continues to excuse itself from the pandemic, we, as individuals, need to show up for those who we stand to lose the most from this betrayal. Whether it’s masking or supporting mutual aid efforts, we all have a part to play. 


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The U.S. ends its national emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic three years after its inception. 

• Policy and public messaging throughout the pandemic have been ableist and consistent with eugenicist ideology.

• The pandemic is not over; the U.S. government is just further abandoning its responsibility.

2400 1600 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture. She has written and edited for several outlets, including Brooklyn Magazine, The Tempest, and the Broward-Palm Beach New Times. Dominique was the managing editor for a women’s health magazine called Sidepiece Magazine.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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