Editorial: Protest During COVID Is Different for Chronically Ill Canadians

It’s important to listen to chronically ill advocates and activists as social movements intersect with the COVID-19 pandemic

(Kristen Frier)

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic and participating in the Black Lives Matter movement simultaneously has proven to be a difficult task for even the healthiest Canadians, let alone people with special mobility needs or chronic health conditions.

As an immunocompromised person with chronic health conditions who has a sincere desire to participate in these demonstrations, I can tell you, it has been challenging. Protests, which I would usually eagerly attend, have suddenly become potential hotbeds for the virus to spread. This unique combination of a public health crisis with a global social movement is new, and navigating it is more challenging than I thought it would be.

The conditions I have mean that my immune system is always weak, and many of my organs are underdeveloped. When I get sick, I get very sick and can be incapacitated for weeks at a time. My lungs are particularly vulnerable to infection, and they’re not very strong, so COVID-19 poses a very real threat to my life.

Still, at a time when everyone was speaking out, it felt wrong to sit silently at home. I was anxious, angry, and ashamed of myself.

I was sitting at home when the Freedom March was held on Juneteenth, but I wanted nothing more than to be there on the ground with my friends and allies.

Meanwhile, loved ones insisted I stay home and healthy. People dropped groceries and supplies off to my apartment, and I isolated for weeks after any sort of public excursion for almost four months. It was lonely and scary but manageable.

Like others in my position, I had to make a decision about what I valued more: Acting on my values and desires or preserving my health. I do this on a case-by-case basis still — at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Canada Place protests, I stood at the back and cheered, but have opted to stay home due to the lack of social distancing there.

Therein lies the root of the problem: Mass change demands mass demonstrations, which draw massive crowds. Massive crowds make social distancing unmanageable, which means immunocompromised people can’t attend without putting themselves at risk.

We’re in a pickle right now, but it’s a pickle we have to struggle with and accept on our own terms.

For healthy readers, please be considerate of others when you’re in public spaces, particularly crowded ones. Wear a mask and gloves, use sanitizer, and stay two metres away from the people around you. You may not be afraid of COVID-19, but others are — for good reason.

For my immunocompromised allies, trust that whatever you choose will be the best decision for your own well-being. Don’t be too hard on yourself for staying home if attending a protest could put you in a hospital bed, and use your energy to do what you can from where you are.

To compensate for my absence at demonstrations, I’ve been using my experience and network to organize and spread awareness about issues that affect racialized and disenfranchised people. You can do the same. Consider which skills and resources you have that could help others and use them. This way, we can keep making a difference, even from bed.

So far, data has shown that the transmission of COVID-19 at protests has been relatively low, but researchers have also said it takes up to six weeks after each event to find out if anti-racism protests caused a spike in COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, large outdoor parties are causing case spikes in the United States.

For me, that means I’d rather be safe than sorry. What does it mean for you?