The Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity (Mass. CHE) held an online press conference on April 5 to demand the state keep protections against COVID-19 in place to safeguard health care workers, people with disabilities and the general population during the continuing pandemic.
The conference was a response to Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healy’s decision to comply with the Biden administration’s decision to terminate the federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) on May 11.
Ending the PHE, which was initially declared by the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in January 2020, will allow bosses at medical facilities in the U.S. privatized health care system to strip millions of health care workers and patients of safety measures, including masking, social distancing and surveillance testing.
Doctors and disability justice activists have urged the Massachusetts government and health care corporations to restore mandated masking in all health care settings, including in doctors and dentists’ offices.
“Why is this so important?” said Dr. Lara Jirmanus, a primary care physician. “COVID-19 is airborne. It spreads through the air like smoke. I see this over and over again with my patients. . . . We need really clear messaging and a plan to make sure these [health care] spaces are accessible to everybody.” (masscoalitionforhealthequity.org)
In addition to mask mandates, Dr. Jirmanus and other medical experts at the press conference stressed the need for improved ventilation in public spaces and increased access to PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing. An open letter listing these demands has received almost 800 signatures as of April 8.
Although limited to COVID-19 transmission mitigation, the measures the coalition has called for provide essential safety for the hundreds of millions at risk from COVID-19.
“None of these single interventions are perfect,” said Amir Mohareb, an infectious disease physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “But taken altogether they really do keep our communities and our friends and our families safe. So essentially that’s the bottom line of what we’re calling for today.”
Disability activists testify
Following the presentations by medical professionals, disability activists testified about their ongoing struggles for rights and survival. Jennifer Ritz-Sullivan, the COVID-19 justice leader of Marked by COVID, spoke about the deadly disregard and dehumanization of people with disabilities whom COVID-19 has killed, including her own mother.
“Millions who have died from COVID-19 have been treated as disposable, and I feel the need to remind you that nobody is disposable,” Ritz-Sullivan said. “I am all too aware of the mass death and disability still surrounding us. I should not be forced to subject myself to further disability or death to meet my basic needs and receive the medical care that I need to survive.”
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a disability justice advocate and author of “The Future Is Disabled,” called attention to the millions of workers and oppressed peoples who continue to struggle with the disabling long-term effects of COVID-19 infection and reinfection.
“Disabled, elderly, poor, working-class, high-risk, kids — folks who have already had COVID-19 three, four, five times, who don’t want to have it a sixth time — all of our lives are valuable,” Piepzna-Samarasinha said. “We deserve to be able to be in public, to go and access health care without wondering if we’re going to die or get sick, or get even more disabled than we already are.”
Other speakers recounted their own experiences fighting to access vaccinations and other health care resources and to keep their families and children, many of whom have disabilities, safe from COVID-19.
At the end of the conference, Piepzna-Samarasinha evoked the political threat of right-wing, corporate, anti-mask forces and the need for solidarity to combat them. “What side are you on?” they asked. “What choices are you willing to make to protect human health?”
Though bourgeois politicians and “expert” pundits insist the pandemic’s health emergency is “over,” data highlighted by speakers show that COVID-19 remains as dangerous as ever and more transmissible than in 2020, because of its continuing mutations. Rates of infection and death continue to rise globally.
Medical experts pointed out that the supposedly “low” COVID-19 rates in Massachusetts, which were used to justify ending the PHE, are a fabrication relying on flawed “community transmission data” to undercount the true number of cases. According to a recent Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation study, only 4% to 5% of infections determined by home testing in the U.S are reported. Nationwide, hundreds of COVID-19 patients are hospitalized every day, and thousands continue to die weekly.
Based on a Household Pulse Survey carried out by the National Center for Health Statistics, over 15% of Massachusetts adult residents have reported long COVID-19 symptoms, and about 3.4% of Massachusetts’ adults said their activity has been or was seriously impaired (the respective rate is 1.6% in the entire U.S.). (tinyurl.com/y4su29t7)
This catastrophe is not “natural.” As Ritz-Sullivan stressed at the close of her remarks, “These losses were, and continue to be, the result of policy choices and will only worsen if the government continues to ignore this pandemic.”
The governments’ decision to end the PHE is part of a broader capitalist state campaign to “normalize” the pandemic, sacrificing health care workers along with children, immunocompromised, disabled and elderly workers, in an act of social mass murder, which, as Friedrich Engels once wrote in a different context, “is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet.” (“Condition of the Working Class in England,” 1845)
As Mass. CHE made clear, and as a recent Workers World Party-Boston resolution has emphasized, any meaningful solidarity requires taking all possible safety measures to protect one another from COVID-19. (WW, March 24) By uniting to fight the pandemic’s ongoing mass disabling and death rates and the capitalist governments’ neglect, workers and oppressed peoples can take a step forward to build a society whose priorities are health and human needs, not profits.