The last two days, Karin Prien, education minister of the German state of Schleswig-Holstein found herself in a bit of a kerfuffle. A proponent of school openings, less testing and perhaps no mask wearing, Prien has come under fire about a reply she made on Twitter. A twitter user had mentioned that several children had died in the last ten days and that schools are overwhelmed and cannot protect them. Prien felt the need to point out that there is a difference between dying of covid-19 and dying „with“ covid-19. Perhaps she is statistically correct. But, as many people pointed out early in this pandemic- a lot of people didn‘t die “of“ AIDS, they died of pneumonia. Does this type of semantic hair-splitting make a difference to parents and loved ones of those who died? I doubt it. And, we may pose the question whether children who are immunocompromised don’t have a right to live without being put in unnecessary danger?
Prien, whatever her personal feelings on the matter may be, was ill-advised to make statements like these on social media, or in general for that matter. When one a parent of an immunocompromised child told her that she would always choose health over education, Prien accused her of being dogmatic. By now, two days later, she is stylizing herself as a victim of what she calls a „twitter mob“, and she has deactivated her account. She announced she would think hard about her continued use of this particular medium, pointing out that “objective debates“ aren‘t possible anymore.
On this side of the pond, Dr. Leana Wen debated school openings, and admitted to the greater risks for children under five, who cannot get vaccinated. Still, she declared this may be part of our “necessary transition from government mandate to individual decisions.” It sucks to be unvaccinated or immunocompromised, sorry, y’all.
I am writing about Prien and Wen because they have been on my radar recently, but they by no means are the only ones talking about ending mask mandates, shrugging off our concerns. These politicians and public personas seem to be surprised at receiving pushback on social media. Perhaps they don’t understand how social media, especially twitter, works. But I think it’s rather an absolute detachment from and oblivion of the reality that a lot of us who are immunocompromised and our loved ones find ourselves in. On a day-to-day basis, we find out that we do not matter in debates about public health, or that we are treated as a minority that can be overlooked.
But we’re not. Officially 3% of the population in the US are immunocompromised. That doesn’t count those at a higher risk for Covid-19 due to chronic illness, recent surgeries etc., it doesn’t count infants who are too young to be vaccinated. In the past two years, we have been Team careful, isolating ourselves. We didn‘t go out, didn‘t go to the movies, avoided grocery shopping or timed it so that not a lot of people would be there, didn’t travel, kept visiting our friends to a minimum, tried to avoid public transport. I have been in the very lucky position that I could financially choose to teach less and if necessary via zoom. Others have not been so fortunate, and had to make the daily decision to risk their health and potentially their lives.
Parents of immunocompromised children both in Germany and the US (and probably most other countries) too, for the last two years had to make hard decisions on a daily basis. If one of your children is immunocompromised, will you allow their siblings to go to school? Or do you keep them at home, opting for zoom (if that is even an option!)? If you keep them at home, who ensures their learning goals are met, who takes care of them? (I don‘t have data on this, but I‘d bet a non insubstantial amount of money on their moms staying home, losing income). In cases where you cannot help your children, tutors may be needed, who is paying for them? Children are missing their friends and grandparents. Parents in the past two years have gone and will go to any length to protect the lives of their immunocompromised children.
And while most of us started with a certain amount of resilience and perseverance (a chronic illness will teach you this, whether you want it or not), we are tired. For the last two years, we had to watch and listen to people who chose horse dewormer over a life-saving vaccine, we had to listen to people wax rhetorically about freedom and the state overstepping its boundaries, people complaining about the psychological damage done to children if they wear masks. We had to witness anti-mask demonstrations, truckers descending on cities, we saw nurses and doctors being more burnt out and exhausted than ever, we had to listen to aggravating Holocaust comparisons, read media “think pieces“ about the inconvenience of public schools being hesitant to open. (I am consciously not linking here). Indeed, articles had to be written informing the public that “getting omicron to get it over with is a bad idea.“ (We truly live in the worst timeline).
Still, nobody asked immunocompromised, or those with long-covid about our freedoms, about the psychological damage we endure when we are told on a daily basis that we don‘t count. The frustration and potential health damage of having to wait for months for doctors‘ appointments, because the system is so overwhelmed, is dismissed. There have been precious few think pieces on how the pandemic is affecting immunocompromised people (in fact, I can only think of one at the top of my head, bc. my friend is quoted in it).
In all of this, there haven‘t been many places to turn. Yes, I vent to my partner and my family, and they are equally frustrated, their life is on hold, too. And there has been social media, including twitter. This is where we find community, where we connect, listen to one another, find comfort. Telling parents of immunocompromised kids and immunocompromised people, who have medical trauma, who have been willing to carry a larger burden than most without thanks, or help, or a basic acknowledgement of the fact, that health is not as important as opening schools, that people die “with but not of covid-19”, and to stay objective in debates is adding insult to injury. Telling someone to be objective is just another way to invalidate them. You tried to come after us in a space that has kept many of us going in the past few years. To give you a very graphic metaphor, you walked in our house and shat on our favorite carpet. (the carpet is our lives, in case the metaphor wasn’t clear enough). Don’t expect us to be “objective.”
You weren’t attacked by a wild online mob. You were poking the bear, you fucked around and found out, you yelled fire in a theater, you made your bed, you threw a stone into the water and are surprised it ripples- choose your expression.