Unmasking a Long Crisis

By Tommy Airey, co-founder and curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net

Last Wednesday, this site propped The People’s CDC, a coalition of public health practitioners, scientists, healthcare workers, educators, advocates and people from all walks of life working to reduce the harmful impacts of COVID-19. The People’s CDC is a great resource for orgs and communities on the left committed to keeping all their people safe. Its weekly Covid “weather reports” are clear, concise and hyperlinked to back the stats. Last week, I received an email from a long-time reader who loves Radical Discipleship, but who had “great concerns” about Wednesday’s post. She referred to a recent study (Cochrane) that she claimed “summarizes that masks are not all that effective.” She was concerned that Wednesday’s post was building on a fear that is unwarranted because the “virus has gone to a much less virulent illness.”

I want to respond publicly to this email because I know that these sentiments are widespread, even on the left. Before I do, allow me to offer this full disclosure: Lindsay and I mostly work from home and we do not have children of our own. We have navigated the pandemic with unique privileges. My heart goes out to my former colleagues in the classroom, friends who are working nine to five jobs, folks I went to seminary with who are orchestrating Sunday services and parents of young children trying to make decisions about masks and gatherings in this climate of Covid denial and minimalism.

Trying to keep up with Covid-19 and make it make sense is an increasingly challenging and risky task. The problem is that ordinary people are swimming against a strong current of “open the economy” campaigns funded by white elites taking advantage of statistics that show people of color are more vulnerable to Covid-19. These stats and targeted disinformation have led white Americans to be consistently less fearful of the disease and less supportive of safety precautions for the past twenty months.

The Cochrane study is a good example of how white elites use “science” to do their dirty work. Cochrane is a recently released review of 78 studies, only six of which were conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic, none in the US. Sources I read have serious issues with its methodology. Its findings do not say that masks are not effective. Cochrane says that it cannot tell if masks are effective or not. Cochrane shrugs its shoulders and says, “We’re not sure.” Unfortunately, this is enough evidence for a lot of people desperately seeking an expert to tell them that masks are meaningless. The truth is that properly-fitted N95 masks work – and they really work when combined with social distancing, better ventilation and gathering outdoors when the weather permits.

What’s weird to me is that this blend of safety guidelines has basically gone out the window virtually everywhere, including gatherings hosted by progressive orgs. This past year, I’ve come across just three spaces with firm mask mandates. The Unitarian Universalists in suburban Detroit, The Raven, an employee-owned bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas. The Socialism Conference in Chicago, Illinois. I am quite sure there are other orgs out there holding it down – and I’d love to hear specifically what they are doing. Seriously. Have these spaces succumbed to fear? That wasn’t my experience. I would describe what I witnessed as love, which the scripture says casts out fear. In fact, these spaces have responded to the statistics in the exact opposite way that white elites have. They based their safety guidelines on those who are most vulnerable to the disease.

Communities that covenant together around Covid protocols that prioritize the protection of the most vulnerable are not trafficking in fear or taking away freedom. They are scripting the work of Isaiah, raising up every valley, razing every hill and leveling everything that’s rough and uneven. These prophetic orgs are participating in a form of radical mutuality, extending the circle of safety to the immune-compromised, those who work and live in tight spaces, those who live downwind from industrial toxins, those who carry intergenerational trauma and disease, those who do not have access to affordable health care, those who are Black or Brown who are two to three times likelier to die from this disease.

It does seem like Covid-19 has become a less virulent illness. The problem is that a legitimate Long Covid conversation is emerging and it does not look good for any of us. The more times we are reinfected, whether we suffer terribly at the time, or we have an asymptomatic case, the more this virus is allowed to attack our vital organs. Long Covid is connected to an increase in heart ailments and neurological disorders. People, like me, are experiencing brain fog and failing to follow through on basic tasks. Long Covid exacerbates pre-existing conditions. This is bad news for me at 49. This is worse news for my still-developing nephews, nieces and godchildren who are all under the age of 18. This is terrible news for people of color who experience more symptoms and health problems related to Long Covid and who have less access to health care than the rest of the population. Long Covid is not make-believe or fear-mongering. It is an inconvenient fact that we all must face.

Over here on the left, there’s a huge difference between a “liberal” and a “radical” approach to Covid-19, just as there is with approaches to capitalism, racism and militarism. Liberals trust in powerful institutions – corporations, city councils, church denominations, the military, the police – to protect all of us. Liberals are committed to social respectability. They stay connected to the critical mass. They go with the flow of free market conventional wisdom, which is casualty management, not harm prevention. Liberals listen to Joe Biden, triumphantly proclaiming in his State of the Union speech, “We have broken Covid’s grip on us!” Liberals believe this and receive it as their permission slip, signed by the powers, allowing them to return to their normal routines.

Radicals, on the other hand, know that powerful institutions are governed by the profit motive – and other supremacy stories like whiteness and American exceptionalism. Powerful institutions cannot be trusted to protect the most vulnerable among us. Radicals must be the oddballs, the aliens, the exiles who set an alternative agenda based on reality and the raw demands of love and liberation. Radicals take on the responsibility of digging to the root of every crisis, of daring others to risk losing social respectability for the sake of those Jesus called “blessed.” Radicals work to even the playing field, so that the most vulnerable among us do not have to choose between sacrificing their health, or staying home.

I hope and pray that white and middle-class readers do not receive this post as a condemnation or woke purity test. I offer this as a first word, not a final word, on a radical discipleship approach to Covid protocols. I am seeking progress, not perfection. I am begging friends of faith and conscience to consider shifting their current pandemic posture. Please. I truly believe that we can think much more creatively outside-the-box-of-conventional-wisdom to make our communities more compassionate and inclusive. Radical discipleship is at its best when we make decisions based on who we are for, not what we are against. I find that this focus clarifies our convictions, even as it makes our conversations with friends and family members a little messier. Radical disciples must face up to the fact that, on the left, not everyone is for the same folks. As a result, there’s always a good chance we’ll be ghosted – or gaslighted by someone telling us to stop scaring people.

Trust me, every time I turn on the TV to watch my Kansas Jayhawks play basketball in front of 16,300 screaming, unmasked fans at Allen Fieldhouse, my soul gets all knotted up. Perhaps we no longer call these games “super spreader events,” but they (and every other public gathering) are definitely propping up this plateau phase we are currently in. About 3,000 Americans a week are dying of the disease and who knows how many are catching it, since at home tests are so unreliable, a significant percentage of cases are asymptomatic and it’s so easy to schlep off symptoms as a cold, allergies or anything else.

The tragic reality is that schlepping off Covid-19 is actually what a lot of Americans must do to survive socially and financially. Because our present policies, at every level of government, lack meaningful supports and safety nets. Our neoliberal society says we are supposed to just show up. No matter what. See, everyone else is doing it! The more we schlep it off, the more this virus keeps coming back around like reruns of the all-white casts of Friends and Seinfeld, long after the networks stopped making new episodes. The big difference is that, in this era of Long Covid syndication, if we just change the channel and pretend it’s not on, we will surely pay the price – either at the upcoming intersection, or just down the road.

Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He roasts his own coffee, roots for the Kansas Jayhawks and rests his head in Detroit, Michigan with his partner Lindsay. He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.

2 thoughts on “Unmasking a Long Crisis

  1. Thank you for this post. I live in Saskatchewan in Canada. I continue to wear a mask in all public places, but have begun to wonder if I am the crazy one, as I see even health professionals in public without their masks. However, I continue to wear it for the immunocompromised I may be meeting and because it is a simple thing to help protect me and all others. I have several friends who do not get paid when sick and I don’t want to be the one who gets them sick and they miss the money they so desperately need.

  2. Thanks, Tommy. I hadn’t stopped by for a while, and was glad to be greeted by your excellent piece, pushing all to think through Covid more deeply, one might even say, more “radically.”” There’s a lot more work to be done on how the “Left” is replicating the “Right” in so many ways, doing exactly what Walter Wink rightly warned against so long ago: becoming what we hate/resist.

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