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COVID Has Become Indefinite. We Need New Practices to Keep Each Other Safe.

Some community organizers are using consent-based practices to build a safer world as the state abandons public health.

Protestors lay down outside the White House to call attention to those suffering from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis on September 19, 2022, in Washington, D.C.

Nearly three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are still struggling with how to ask the people around them — their families, coworkers, fellow organizers and other community members — to respect their needs related to coronavirus safety. As guidelines and social situations have shifted away from mandates, these conversations have become more necessary but not necessarily more frequent.

Caroline Hugh is an analyst and social epidemiologist, and a member of the People’s CDC, a volunteer-run public health coalition that centers equity and disseminates evidence-based health updates. Hugh said that a lot of the messaging from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Biden administration has been “either you avoid COVID, and you don’t see people, or you see people, and you’ll get COVID,” which is not true. This black-and-white messaging is one of many factors that has made it difficult for people to navigate conversations around shared COVID-19 protocols in various settings.

The Pandemic Is Far From Over

In September, President Joe Biden announced that the pandemic was over, but it is clear to many people in the United States that this could not be further from the truth. For example, from September 29 to October 5, at least 2,373 people died of COVID in the U.S. Many researchers, as well as the Biden administration itself, expect to see a surge in cases this winter as the weather turns colder and more people are forced to interact indoors. The lack of institutional support has forced individuals to negotiate their own COVID protocols and boundaries, as the government has increasingly withdrawn support for stronger guidelines as well as resources that would make these guidelines implementable.

Connie Wun, co-founder of the Bay Area organization AAPI Women Lead, also highlighted the racist, colonialist and extractive nature of what’s happened to her community during the pandemic. Wun said the organization has, for example, recently distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) to Oakland Chinatown elders using their native languages — something the state has failed to do. Wun also noted the way that COVID has become an opportunity to capitalize on preexisting violence. The organized abandonment of Oakland Chinatown by the state allowed gentrification to take a stronger hold. Now, in line with the needs of gentrification, the state has responded to the pandemic with more policing and surveillance.

“We’ve asked for more community resources to build up our increasingly gentrified and displaced communities; instead they bring in police,” Wun said. “They have used this violence against us specifically in the Chinatowns and against Asian communities, I guess to undermine or to pit us against Black communities and other communities of color.”

The alleged intent of official public health policies is for individuals to negotiate their own most comfortable level of protections, yet in Wun’s view these same policies enable and even enact violence in AAPI communities without consent. Wun also pointed to the violence that Asian community members around the world have experienced as a result of being scapegoated for the pandemic, as well as the very different and particular forms of violence experienced by Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.

This violence did not begin with COVID — “Actually, the violence has started since colonialism and imperialism,” said Wun — but COVID has brought together a particular intensity of violent circumstances. This includes backlash against organizers at AAPI Women Lead, who have been attacked in emails and direct messages over their work.

No matter what individual solutions the state or any individual may offer, the reality is that everyone is still embedded within various communities, living in a time of moderate to extremely high transmission of a dangerous airborne disease.

Some, like Wun and AAPI Women Lead, are focused on building or strengthening communities. “In order to build a different world, against the kind of ethos of this place that continues to cause harm, we have to continue to work together with those who consent to work with us,” Wun said. “This is a part of us reimagining a different world. We saw what the old world was doing. We saw people continue to rush for that old world, despite its failures and despite its harms, but I think our organization and the people we care about want something different.”

As people attempt to either build community, strengthen existing ties or simply navigate everyday life, consent and healthy boundaries are critical tools.

Expanding the notion and practice of consent may be one way to improve people’s abilities to communicate with each other in community about their COVID safety needs, said Molly Roach, a sexual assault crisis counselor in Massachusetts.

“I would love to see that conversation of consent, just in general, be so expanded to recognize that consent is something that is not just about this one topic. It can be extrapolated into every aspect of your life,” including one’s COVID-related needs, Roach said.

In difficult times for community building, healthy boundaries and consent are practices that can help strengthen relationships and ultimately lead to healthier, more equitable communities. Learning how to effectively employ these tools, however, can be an uphill battle.

How Bringing Consent Into Community-Building Efforts Can Help

One obstacle is that consent itself is not very well understood. Cierra Raine Sorin, a sociologist who studies consent, said the point was not to adopt “one solution for every single thing, but actually learning the process of negotiating consent with people.”

“The first two big words that come to mind for me are discomfort and respect,” she said. In general, she added, people have not been encouraged to learn how to negotiate consent and even then, most have only learned to negotiate in “very specific terrains.” Sorin also highlighted the power dynamics that can make it hard for people to know how to refuse to compromise on their own safety without making others uncomfortable.

Sorin suggested a few concrete techniques for dealing with these challenges. She said that it’s important to be able to “acknowledge, recognize and respect where other people are uncomfortable,” and also to “realize that because somebody is asking for something, that doesn’t have to be an attack on you.”

Sorin also suggested being in dialogue with the broader community, even in the planning stages of an event, “so that people can be as informed as possible.” That way even in a community that values individualism, people are able to have enough information to take good care of themselves.

Consent is an ongoing process, not a once and done, Sorin added. Furthermore, she said, “consent to participate is something that can be revoked at any time. Or that the circumstance around people’s ability to participate might need to be adjusted at any time. And that should be welcomed, accepted and again respected.”

In the context of COVID, for example, a person might agree to spend time with others without masks but receive new information during the gathering that causes their decision to change, such as another person in the group mentioning that they have recently been to an event with a large number of people.

For this reason, both Sorin and Roach emphasized the importance of clear communication and as much transparency as possible, both in advance and throughout social interactions.

Current Social Arrangements Discourage Healthy Boundaries

Anne Solari, a clinical social worker who works with queer youth, said one problem was that in general, social norms do not encourage people to speak up for themselves, whether that be setting healthy boundaries or communicating other needs. This is exacerbated for people socialized as girls, who are implicitly or explicitly instructed to silence their own needs and to serve others. In an environment where, as the sociologist Sorin put it, “a lot of our institutions are not about people consenting, but about people conforming,” it can often be difficult for people to simply identify what they need.

The current institutional context of the COVID-19 pandemic presents additional, specific barriers to using consent to create community spaces. One of these, according to the People’s CDC, is the constant misinformation.

Mary Jirmanus Saba, a filmmaker and geographer and a volunteer with the group, said, “it’s just misinformation from the top about how COVID spread, about how you could protect yourself.” With constant misinformation, for example about airborne spread, people have an even harder time setting or even knowing their boundaries.

Hugh explained the need for constant reinforcement of good information in this environment. “You would think two plus years into the pandemic, all this stuff would be intuitive at this point. But unfortunately, given the government reneging on its responsibilities, and gaslighting us at all angles, people are forgetting.”

The regular misinformation is not the only thing that makes it challenging to maintain boundaries. Roach, the crisis counselor, said that although the degree of harm may vary, at a basic level, once a person has had their boundaries broken or their consent violated, it becomes more difficult for them to continue putting in the effort to set boundaries and many become resigned.

Roach and Sorin both said when social norms and institutions contradict the healthy boundaries a person sets for themselves it becomes much harder to set them. If there is little or no expectation that the boundary will actually be respected, then it is hard to put it out there in the first place. This is why even when a person has a lot of information and is clear about what they want their “personal approach” to COVID to be, it can be so hard to ask those around them, for example, to put on a mask or to cover their nose. The corporate media and policy response has created a situation in which each of us is unsure what the response to that request will be in a given moment.

Yet even though the current institutional context may make it seem worthless to keep trying to set boundaries, Hugh noted that “a lot of this stuff is on a spectrum, not a binary. So even with COVID exposure, it’s not like an on-off switch, whether you’re exposed or not. At this point, probably everyone in the world has been exposed to COVID. But at varying degrees, the number of infectious particles matters, the duration of exposure matters. So I would encourage people to not give up if they’ve been exposed for a minute or two. Do whatever you can to put those layers of protection back on.”

Building Consentful Communities and Centering Collective Wellness

The People’s CDC works constantly to combat this discouraging situation. They have developed easily shared fact sheets on different aspects of the pandemic, such as the ineffectiveness of cloth masks and how to improve indoor ventilation. They regularly share an accurate map of community transmission. They also produce a weekly “weather report” on the status of the pandemic that counters the corporate media and highlights data buried in official reports. They have organizing tools like a petition to the CDC and an Urgency of Equity toolkit that people can use to advocate for safer schools. Volunteers emphasize that producing this information is a form of community care. For those seeking to reduce their exposure, they suggest a “layers of protection” approach, although of course they acknowledge it is not always possible to control all the layers. The seven layers identified by the Peoples CDC are a marked difference from the Biden administration’s approach, which has generally suggested replacing masks with vaccinations.

By providing this information, the People’s CDC hopes to arm people with information to have “safer gatherings” while also emphasizing that the pandemic is still going on. Hugh and Jirmanus Saba, from the group, shared several examples of groups who have been able to get together without community spread. These examples ranged from a group of friends playing basketball indoors through the winter (with the help of a HEPA purifier, N95 masks and rapid tests) to several schools. Hugh even shared the details of her karaoke birthday party using the layers of protection approach.

Jirmanus Saba said the organization’s “real goal is to build popular power,” and that they’d like to partner with more community groups, who, although they may not be explicitly focused on COVID, “have a sense that things are wrong, because they’re the people still being most impacted.”

Consent and its more general application, boundaries, are to some extent dependent on the wider social context. But, as Truthout’s Kelly Hayes said recently, “With no safety nets to catch us as we fall, we are going to need solidarity to survive.” Consent, good boundary practices and information can also be tools for building stronger communities. According to Wun of AAPI Women Lead, “a part of building this new world is that we all have access to consent.”

Solari, the social worker, recommended taking whatever steps were necessary to limit contact with anyone who cannot respect boundaries, and these steps may vary person to person. “That step could be, I’m letting you know that this is why I’m cutting off ties, or that step could be, I’m just going to keep it really vague with you.” Wun agreed that the hard part may be acknowledging that not everyone is going to come with us.

It is upstream work to continue to center safety, equity, wellness, health and consent in the midst of a pandemic and a seeming social consensus that these things don’t matter. And it is often survival work, meaning that it may not feel very energizing. But the work of Wun and AAPI Women Lead, for example, shows how this work is rooted in a vision of collective wellness that is indispensable to liberation.

Over the last two and a half years, Wun and AAPI Women Lead have raised more than $60,000 to redistribute to community members, distributed masks to elders in Oakland, fundraised for climate crises internationally and organized workshops on healing justice, community safety, self-defense, bystander trainings, education and more. They have reclaimed traditional forms of healing and work for a “definition of wellness that is collective and collaborative,” and extends beyond the physical.

For Wun, the pandemic and all of the violence that she and her community have experienced are “about recognizing that this continues to be wartime. So for me, it’s also a necessity to do this. I need to find out who’s going to help me to survive — and my communities, all the people I love.”

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