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. These conversations have become more important but not more frequent as guidelines and social situations are no longer mandated.
Caroline Hugh, an analyst and social epidemiologist is a member the People’s CDC, a volunteer-run health coalition that centers equity in health and disseminates evidence-based updates on health. 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 simplistic messaging makes it difficult to have conversations about COVID-19 protocols in different settings.
The Pandemic is far from over
September President Joe Biden announcedIt was clear that the pandemic was over but it is not over. many peopleThis could not be further from truth in the United States. For example, between September 29th and October 5th, at most 2,373 people diedCOVIDThe U.S. There are many researchers as well as the Biden administration itselfExpect to see a surge in cases this winterAs the weather gets colder, more people have to be indoors. Individuals have had to negotiate their own COVID protocols. increasingly withdrawn supportFor more information, see the following: resourcesThese guidelines would be easier to implement.
Connie Wun, cofounder 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 mentioned the potential of COVID to capitalize upon preexisting violence. The organized abandonmentThe state allowed gentrification in Oakland Chinatown. The state has responded to the pandemic by increasing surveillance and policing in order to meet the needs of gentrification.
“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 mentioned the violence that Asian community members across the globe have experienced as a consequence of being made to pay for the pandemic.
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 the backlash against organizers of AAPI Women Lead, who were attacked via email and direct messages for their work.
No matter how many individual solutions the state offers, the fact is that everyone lives in communities where there is high transmission of dangerous airborne illnesses.
Wun and AAPI Women Lead are focusing on strengthening or building 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 the effects of the old world. 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.”
Consent and healthy boundaries can be crucial tools in helping people build community, strengthen existing connections, or just navigate daily life.
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.
Healthy boundaries and consent are important practices in times of community building difficulties. They can strengthen relationships and lead to more equitable and healthy communities. It can be difficult to learn how to use these tools effectively.
How consent can be integrated into community-building efforts
Consent isn’t always understood well. 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 some concrete ways to deal with these issues. 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.
Sorin explained that consent is an ongoing process, and not something that is done once and done all the time. 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 COVID, an individual might agree to spend time without masks, but receive new information during the gathering which causes them to change.
Roach and Sorin stressed the importance of clear communication, transparency, and open communication in all interactions, including those with others.
Current Social Arrangements Encourage Healthy Boundaries
Anne Solari is a clinical social worker who works closely with queer youth. She said that one problem is that social norms generally don’t encourage people speaking up for themselves, regardless of whether they are setting healthy boundaries, or communicating other needs. This is especially true for girls who are socialized as girls and are explicitly or implicitly told to suppress their own needs and 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 COVID-19 presents additional barriers to consenting 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 spreadPeople have a harder job setting boundaries and even knowing what they are.
Hugh explained how important it is to constantly reinforce the 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.”
It is not just the regular misinformation that makes it difficult to maintain boundaries. Roach, the crisis counselor, stated that, although the degree of harm might vary, it is more difficult for people to maintain boundaries once they have had their boundaries violated or their consent violated. Many people become resigned.
Roach and Sorin said that it’s much more difficult to set boundaries when social norms or institutions are in conflict with healthy boundaries that a person has established for themselves. It is difficult to set boundaries if there is no expectation that they will be respected. 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. Because of the corporate media and policy responses, each person is uncertain what the response will be at any given time.
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. This means that almost everyone has been exposed. However, exposure time and the amount of infectious particles can have an impact on the severity of the disease. 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 focusing collective wellness
The People’s CDC works constantly to combat this discouraging situation. They have created easily shared fact sheets that cover different aspects of the pandemic. ineffectiveness of cloth masksIndoor ventilation and how to improve it. They share their knowledge regularly. 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 use organizing tools such as a petition to the CDCAnd an Urgency of Equity toolkitAdvocates can use these resources to help make schools safer. Volunteers stress that sharing this information is a form 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 layersIdentified by the People’s 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 shared many examples of groups that have been able get together without spreading the disease. These examples included a group of friends playing indoor basketball through winter (with the help a HEPA purifier and N95 masks, rapid tests), to many schools. Hugh even shared the idea. the details of her karaoke birthday partyUse 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.”
The wider social context is a significant influence on consent and its more general application, boundaries. However, as Truthout’s Kelly Hayes recently stated, “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 that you take whatever steps are necessary to limit contact to anyone who is not willing to respect boundaries. However, these steps can vary depending on the individual. “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. It is often survival work, so it may not feel very stimulating. Wun and AAPI Women Leader, for example, demonstrate how this work is rooted within a vision that collective wellness is essential to liberation.
Wun and AAPI Women Lead, who have raised more $60,000 to redistribute community members, distributed masks and helped elders in Oakland, and donated to climate crises around the world over the past two-and-a half years, have been able to raise more than $60,000. organized workshopsOn healing justice, community safety and self-defense, bystandertrainings, 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.”