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No, COVID Isn’t “Over,” and the Need for Continued Community

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On an orange background, six black line illustrations depicting: a COVID-19 virus, a face mask, a lung filled with COVID viruses, a person's head tilted back with a nose swab, a swab in a test tube, and a rapid antigen test. In between these illustrations is the text "Why we still need pandemic solidarity."

Credit: Original image by jKartak from Pixabay. Digitally altered by Lucy Kang.

This March marks four years since the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared. Public health failures and government inaction have forced communities to take matters into their own hands. On today’s show, we look at two groups steeped in the values of community care.

First, we’ll hear about the Auntie Sewing Squad, which distributed over 350,000 hand-sewn masks to communities in 2020-2021. Then, we’ll speak with organizers from Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future, which is working today towards a safer future for everyone.

Featuring:

  • Kristina Wong – founder of the Auntie Sewing Squad
  • J Mase III – organizer with Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future
  • Gata – organizer with Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Lucy Kang
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar

Music:

  • “Background Documentary Piano” by SigmaMusicArt via Pixabay

More Information:

Learn More:

Transcript:

Lucy Kang: I’m Lucy Kang, and you’re listening to Making Contact.

It’s been four years since the COVID pandemic was officially declared in March 2020.

At the time, the federal government failed to take action, leading to shortages of masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE. Mutual aid groups stepped in to keep vulnerable communities safe in the face of the state’s inaction and public health failures.

It’s now 2024. And a lot’s changed since then, but COVID is still here. As are groups working to keep each other protected.

On today’s show, we’ll hear from two different groups practicing community care in the face of a pandemic: one from the early days of lockdown, and one from now, with people actively trying to build towards a future of pandemic solidarity.

First up, we’ll start with a trip to the past.

Performance artist Kristina Wong has a new show called “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord.” It focuses on the mutual aid group she led from March 2020 through Fall 2021, when she became the unintentional leader of the Auntie Sewing Squad. The squad sewed and distributed cloth masks at a time when factory-made masks were in short supply.

Kristina Wong: And the Auntie Sewing Squad was supposed to be like a one or two week effort that started in March when there were no face masks available on the market and there was a lockdown and a lot of panic. And I basically assembled a lot of volunteer Aunties to sew remotely from their homes. But we ended up going on for a year and a half and grew to 800 Aunties of all genders all over the country and sent 350,000 masks to some of the most vulnerable communities to the virus. So I’m talking about places like the Navajo Nation, farm workers, migrants seeking asylum at our border, incarcerated communities, the working poor, like these were all communities that we sewed masks for.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, and I love the way that you weave in all this like history. Like for me, it really did feel like a walk down memory lane. And I’m wondering, you know, why was it important for you to showcase this time in your life and also in the nation’s history? 

Kristina Wong: Sure, like when this was happening the first few days of lockdown when we thought it would only be a week and I was running around scrambling around trying to get elastic from people cutting the straps off bras. 

But what became really clear was I was witnessing a level of generosity and care that I had never experienced before. And in this moment of running a sewing group, I got to meet people because they were willing to sew, willing to risk their lives to go help drive things to the post office, right?

And just had this moment where I was like I’ve just never witnessed this before and here I, I also have never seen myself step up like this in this moment. I always thought during a crisis that I would be the one pushing a shopping cart of my belongings up the freeway and fighting people off with a pipe. I thought it would be like this Mad Max thing that I would be doing. So this was like very new for me to actually be generous with heart. Like that’s, that’s amazing. That’s new, Kristina.  

And so that felt like it was worth remembering. Uh, we were getting a lot of attention too, as a mask sewing group. And I was on Good Morning America. I was on like all these shows, but most of the interviews also just seemed to stop short of just portraying us as like, Oh, look at all these women, these Aunties who love sewing, aren’t they nice. Right? 

And I had witnessed just how difficult this labor was, how minimized sewing labor is in the eyes of a lot of people who benefit from it, like because we’re so Amazon Primed to just hit a few buttons and then stuff just shows up at our door that we don’t think about how difficult it is to actually produce masks in a moment where Joann’s is closed and most places are out of elastic. And so it just felt important to really capture what I was witnessing, which was a sort of human spirit that we have generosity and care that I just never imagined was possible. And I felt it was worth retelling when this was all over because I do feel like we’ve moved so far from that point of generosity or we’re all in this together. We’ve become quite cynical. So that to me was what was worth recording this for.

Lucy Kang: Yeah. Well, you know, I also appreciated the way that you incorporated Asian American history and the Asian American like experience into your performance. So for example, at one point you talk about how laundry washing was one of the only job opportunities open for Chinese immigrants because it was seen as, quote unquote, “women’s work.” And you also document like, you know, the waves of anti-Asian violence and harassment that people face during the pandemic. Why was it important for you to bring that into the show?

Kristina Wong: Okay. Okay. This is why I did the show. Okay. I got it. I had a moment and I was just watching the news, and it’s Trump saying crazy things. It’s hate crimes everywhere. It’s, look what the Chinese have done and brought this virus here, right? 

And I remember saying to the Aunties, I don’t need this to be about us, but if there is a museum remembering this moment in time of the COVID pandemic. I just want a small section of this history to point to this moment now, which is not Asian Americans just getting beat up or bringing this virus here and being called names by the person who is in charge of this pandemic, of leading this country.  But I want this work just to be remembered in a small part of this, you know, theoretical history. 

And as it turns out, I am the history keeper, right? Like I had to be that living museum and not, I can’t wait for some perfect curator to come by and remember all this stuff because there’s all these nuances that I felt like the news stories that I was interviewing for were not capturing. And a lot of these nuances had to do with expressing racial solidarity around radical care around the history of this labor and how profound the history of this labor was.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, and that idea of reclaiming that history or being able to tell that history does also show up. I’ll just say that like I laughed through your show. I also cried a lot in a way that I didn’t, I was surprised by. But yeah, being in that time, like I felt so immersed in that time. And I want to circle back to something which is how you ended up, maybe not planning to, but becoming the de facto leader of this sewing squad. And I’m wondering what the relationship is between that and this sort of tongue in cheek title of yourself as the “sweatshop overlord.” 

Kristina Wong: So, so much of how we survived as a group was like, it was just so, so ridiculous where it felt like we were Robinson Crusoe, but still had access to Uber Eats, right? Like how are we supposed to be like the most powerful country in the world, and I got people begging me for my cut up bed sheet masks, right? Like I got people coming by, willing to bribe me with treats from a bakery that they braved and got to get that.

And so, so much of the humor of our group was not, you know, making fun of sweatshop workers necessarily, but just sort of pointing to how ridiculous this was that a country that you think would be equipped to like deploy safety equipment and make clear messaging around wearing masks, which they were not, as being important and staying safe. That it was sort of left on us to help everybody. 

And I also just saw the irony that a lot of the people in my group, a lot of the Aunties who knew how to sew, were of Asian descent. And a lot of them had mothers and grandmothers who were garment workers. And they would help them do piecework. And so there’s this kind of insane irony that we were in a moment where people were angry at Asian faces because they assumed that Asian people brought this virus to this country. They did not. It originated in China. It does not mean that Chinese people were conspiring to bring it here and that all Chinese Americans or Asian Americans had the virus.

So it was just sort of this terrible gallows humor joke that we were the sweatshop, and I had become the sweatshop overlord. And it just sort of stuck and it was a controversial term. Some of the Aunties were like, well, we’re not actually sweatshop workers because we have the privilege of time to do this right now. And…

But for me, I felt like I had to lean on the term “sweatshop” in quotes to kind of continually point to the failure of the federal government and keeping us safe and getting protective supplies to communities that had already failed before the pandemic. It does also bring a lot of humor, like a lot of strange humor around this time to the story of what we lived through. 

Lucy Kang: Well, Kristina, thank you so much for taking the time just to talk with me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.

Kristina Wong: Oh, no problem. No problem. My pleasure. 

Lucy Kang: That was Kristina Wong, speaking about the Auntie Sewing Squad. Her show, “Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord,” is playing at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco March 30 through May 5th. The Auntie Sewing Squad wrapped up in the fall of 2021, when factory-made masks like N-95s with much better filtration were finally widely available.

Amy Gastelum: You’re listening to Making Contact. For more information about today’s show, check out radioproject.org. Tell us what you think! Okay, now, back to the show.

Lucy Kang: Welcome back to Making Contact. I’m Lucy Kang.

In the first part of today’s show, we revisited the days of March 2020, when the COVID pandemic was officially declared. And there’s a lot we’ve learned since then. But COVID is still circulating in our communities and making people sick – sometimes for the long term and in ways we don’t totally understand yet. And there are new groups today bringing the values of community care forward.

One of those is Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future. I spoke with organizers J Mase III and Gata about pandemic solidarity and why it’s more important now than ever.

Yeah, well, let’s just dive, dive into it. Could you explain for our listeners, what is Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future, and what is its mission? 

J Mase III: Listen, I mean, really, it’s a dream, right? But Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future is a group of ten of us that are independent organizers that have come together to specifically create a three day convening that allows Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander, or BBIAPI folks, to come together virtually to address pandemic solidarity as one piece of it, to create a blueprint for pandemic solidarity that is publicly shared, and, three, to create a PPE Beyond Just Masks Fund, which is something that we’re creating to allow for the distribution of higher ticket PPE items such as molecular tests, HEPA filters and air purifiers and other things that people need in community to stay safe. 

So for us at Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future, we are calling ourselves that because we believe that we as Black, Brown, Indigenous folks, as disabled folks, as trans and queer folks, we have a right to the future. And we believe that you do too. And we get there by making sure that we’re taking the spread of COVID seriously.

Lucy Kang: One of the things that I really wanted to hear about the work of Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future is, why is it necessary now, you know, four years into the COVID pandemic?

J Mase III: You know, speaking for myself as a Black trans person, you know, I think there’s, you know, we get all these narratives, of course, about COVID being over for some reason, or COVID not being that big of a deal, or it’s a cold. In the reality, you know, 46 percent of trans folks who have gotten COVID in the U.S. have developed long COVID symptoms, right? 46%, right? 

And part of that is about COVID, part of that is about the systems under which we live that make it so difficult for especially like Black, Brown, and Indigenous trans people to just survive on a regular daily basis. But as we witness this uptick in anti-Black and anti-trans violence that is legislatively and physically impacting us, we cannot ignore the relationship between racial and trans justice and disability justice as our communities are experiencing these attempts at killing us, right? And COVID, the ways that our governments are specifically responding to COVID, of course, is a part of that. 

Gata: And, you know, I also think it’s important especially to talk about pandemic solidarity at this moment, because, you know, I do hear other people say, you know, no one wears a mask anymore, or no one talks about COVID anymore. And that is simply just not true. There are many, many, many, many of us. We’re a thriving community of COVID cautious, COVID conscious, COVID informed people who want to keep ourselves and other community members safe. And I think being able to find that community and learn from each other in times where all we have is each other is how we are going to be able to survive and have solidarity for the long future.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, I’d love for us to dive deep into unraveling some of these harmful narratives around COVID. Can we kind of touch on also what some of the risks of long COVID are? Like what does that mean for us as a community?

Gata: So, you know, I believe that the COVID pandemic honestly really highlighted and unearthed what immunocompromised and disabled folks have been telling us the whole time. The state does not care about us, whether we die or become disabled. It literally only cares about our labor. And, you know, not just COVID itself, but just how the pandemic has led to unfold.

When vaccines were available, we saw how the US withheld vaccines, just as we saw the colonial project of Israel withholding vaccines from Palestinians. We also witnessed when white scientists were debating about whether or not vaccines should be tested first on Africans, just in case it was dangerous, on live tv.

Something important to highlight is that if you are not taking any precautions or you’re taking very little precautions right now, I really want to encourage you every anybody listening to please wear a mask and connect with your local mass bloc, donate to your local mass bloc, educate yourself from your local mask bloc and others of us in this community on the impacts of COVID and long COVID and how to best protect yourself. People are really just trying to live in a reality that frankly is just no longer sustainable. 

J Mase III: I think also what’s really important about that is, I think people assume that when you’re immunocompromised, you get like a big announcement at your door that says like, you are immunocompromised now, right?

The reality is, especially for those of us that are Americans, we live in a country in which we do not get free access to health care. We live in a country in which for many of us, it is too expensive for us to have regular access to care. Even outside the dangers right now currently with COVID, before this moment, we did not have regular access to health care.

And for many people who are immunocompromised, they don’t even know that they’re immunocompromised yet, right? They haven’t even been given that much information. And that for many people it’s really about being able to put together your symptoms yourself. It’s like being able to do all these other different things outside of being given this overarching label, right?

And so there’s so many more people who are immunocompromised in this country post-COVID infections that they know right now. And so people that are presuming COVID to be a cold. After your first, second, third infection, fourth infection, fifth infection – I met someone the other day who’s had nine infections of COVID – your immune system is not operating the same way it might have used to, right? Even getting sick this often and this frequently for many people, they have not yet reconciled that when we’re talking about immunocompromised folks, that we’re talking about disabled folks, that they too are part of that group.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, and I guess, I’m wondering if either of you wanted to share any, you know, personal stories about how you or the people close to you have been impacted as well.

Gata: I think it’s important to also remember that, you know, COVID is not the same as RSV, the flu, or a cold because it is already showing long term damage to all major organs. COVID has literally brought down our life expectancy as a whole, you know?

I think when people say like, hey, the immunocompromised and the elderly need to be careful, I think we also need to remember “the immunocompromised and the elderly,” quote unquote, are not the only ones at risk. We are all at risk. 

I had a friend whose family member was in cancer remission. And their friends just could not be inconvenienced to be careful and wear a mask and take precautions around this family member. And they were just surprised when the family member passed away from COVID. And it was treated as if it’s inevitable. I mean, they’re immunocompromised. Why even bother taking precautions? Why even bother doing this? 

And I think that just speaks very much to just that we have as a community when it comes to taking care of each other, when it comes to… I mean, it’s just odd to me that you are waiting on the government to tell you like, hey, there’s this rule in order for you to care. I would hope that we can recognize amongst each other that, hey, I want to take care of you, and I would like to be taken care of as well. How do we do this? Why do we need, I guess, the government or the state to, I guess, be involved in that when, I guess, at the end of the day, all we have is each other.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, and I guess circling back to this idea of, you know, we can’t wait for the state to save us, could you talk about some of the biggest public health failures in responding to the COVID pandemic in the early days and how they continue? 

J Mase III: You know, we became aware of COVID in this way in the States and taking it  seriously in this way, what in March 2020 is when we first had lockdowns and things like that. We’re still in the early phases of COVID, right? So, it seems like it has no interest in slowing down. And so for me, I’ve lost family members, not just to the disease itself, but the conditions caused by the disease and not taking it seriously.

So that includes family members who maybe had cancer diagnoses who couldn’t see doctors because the hospitals and things were filled up with so many COVID patients, people who were not able to go get their dialysis in the same kind of way, because of, you know, there being so much COVID around or other sort of things like that, right. And so to me, it’s just been the lack of, the complete lack of care of the humanity of folks who had been disabled and immunocompromised before COVID was a thing who have been completely thrown by the wayside. 

It’s also looking at the ways in which, at this point in the pandemic, in which corporations have more say in how our governments and our medical professionals respond to COVID than the people actually medically impacted. 

So I would still say that we’re still in the early stages. And that we’re seeing policy right now in which the CDC is now announcing a one day quarantine for something that we know can be infectious. Not just for like a week later two weeks later. For some people for very rare instances you could be positive from COVID like months later sometimes. And so there’s no science that backs up this one day quarantine even right now. That’s going to cause more people to return to work sick, as well as it’s going to cause people to be in contact with people who are forced to come to work while they’re sick to be more impacted by COVID infections as well.

Gata: You know, as someone who has struggled with chronic illness of upper respiratory issues myself, I have been taking a lot of precautions throughout the pandemic. I feel like it’s been a mix of just being lucky and also just being safe.

When my partner was infected from COVID, I remember being very scared. I remember my partner calling her doctor and saying, okay, well, what am I supposed to do? And the doctor not giving very much any guidance. Just, yeah, just sleep it off, rest, pretty much treating it like a cold. Whereas when I spoke with the COVID cautious community, they had told me, no, she needs to get on Paxlovid. 

The doctor, even though my partner did ask the doctor for Paxlovid, she was denied because she is not immunocompromised or high risk, considered immunocompromised or high risk. Meanwhile, my COVIDing community said, hey, go to test2treat.org. You’ll be able to get Paxlovid there. I went and by the next day we had the Paxlovid for my partner to take. 

And another thing is the packaging of our rapid tests. They just say just swab your nose. Actually in Canada, and there’s been a lot of research done where you can increase the effectiveness of your rapid test by swabbing the back of your throat or tonsils, your cheeks and your nose. And I had literally just found out about that a week before my partner was positive with COVID. So how we were able to find out and get that small positive line was because of something I learned from the COVID cautious community. 

So how I was able to be safe and not get infected with COVID from beginning to end of testing for COVID, of getting the tests for COVID, of the education around COVID all came from the COVID cautious community. The doctors, the CDC, the government were completely useless – I will be very honest – were completely useless in that. And that is why I have a lot of hope in our COVID cautious community above anything else.

Lucy Kang: Yeah, at this point, I’d really like to maybe turn towards the vision of the long future that the Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future is invested in building. I have been reading through this document called the “Blueprint for the Long Future” and just wondering if you would be able to talk about some of the important points from that?

J Mase III: What the goal is, is to make it very plain for people about basic things that they can do to make sure they keep themselves and other folks safe, as well as like how to better advocate for themselves and their loved ones. And so, I feel like when we talk about what does it take for us to be COVID safe or what does it take for us to be in pandemic solidarity, it’s not rocket science. It’s based in community care. 

And so what we’re trying to remind each other in this world of capitalism, in this world of end stage capitalism, in which we’re constantly being dehumanized, we’re asking you to return to your humanity. So we’re asking you to re-envision a time in which you prioritize humanity over all else, right? Kindness with each other over all else. Intention over all else and above the chaos that capitalism tries to put on to us.

And so it’s everything from, you know, the basics of making sure you’re wearing an N95 to making sure that our organizations are providing purified air for people to make sure that we’re able to breathe clean air with each other, to making sure that our medical professionals keep themselves and their colleagues held accountable for the ways in which they participated in this ongoing harm that is happening in the unmitigated spread of COVID.

Lucy Kang: One of the quotes from your blueprint is, “The continuation of this pandemic directly ties to violence enacted around the globe in the form of climate collapse, genocide, mass incarceration and more.” And I’m wondering, would you be able to share with us just how you see those things as being connected?

J Mase III: Most definitely. I mean, especially when we talk about the incarceration piece, I think about in this country, in the US in particular, right, and this is not just, this is not only happening in the US, but if we think about around the globe. So one of the things that I know Gata mentioned earlier is the ways in which imperialist colonial projects such as Israel withheld vaccines from Palestinians people that are actively being targeted, right? They’re actively being murdered. They’re actively experiencing a genocide. These are the same forces that train a lot of our police and our military forces here in the United States, right? The same country that also was withholding vaccines from other nations. 

I think of it in ways in which we punish and penalize houseless people in this country in the US, right, that being experienced a multiple COVID infections because you can’t afford to go to work right with or because you can’t afford to skip work means that you’re most you’re more likely and to be experiencing disability, right?

Well, in this country, disability is not just a physical or mental piece. It is also socioeconomic. It is also a cultural point in time. It’s all these other different components, right? And so that also in this place in which we penalize houseless people who are more likely to have disabilities, right? As Black and Brown people, more likely to have disabilities. As trans people, we’re more likely to have disabilities than our other colleagues, right? That we’re often penalized for being neurodiverse by the state, right? We’re more likely to face incarceration. We’re more likely to be punished for loitering because we don’t have other places to be. All these different things definitely mean that COVID is funneling more people into the incarceration system.

Lucy: Well, J Mase and Gata, thank you so much for joining us on Making Contact today. 

J Mase III: Thank you. Thank you so much for having us. 

Gata: Thank you. 

Lucy Kang: That was Gata and J Mase III, organizers with Pandemic Solidarity for the Long Future. For more information or to read the Blueprint for the Long Future, check out pandemicsolidarity.org.

And that does it for today’s show. For more information, head over to radioproject.org. I’m Lucy Kang. Thanks for listening to Making Contact. 

Author: Radio Project

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