I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that it’s been difficult to focus on anything other than the coronavirus pandemic for the past two weeks. As much as I try to keep motivated, it’s almost impossible to stay present during a dragging Zoom lecture or a dense reading. My mind wanders and questions what these minor endeavors mean in the face of a worldwide crisis. Even my usual litany of distractions can’t offer refuge, with Twitter updating me on the death toll and Facebook bombarding me with coronavirus memes. For some, impacts have been far more severe than lack of motivation — they have lost jobs, homes, business and even loved ones to the pandemic.

The most radical change for many of us is being abruptly forced into stagnancy. But just because our lives have effectively been halted does not mean the world has come to a standstill. The Democratic nomination process marches on with frontrunner Joe Biden notably absent, the worst locust plague in decades is swarming in East Africa and the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia continues. Events that would typically populate headlines have become secondary to the coronavirus coverage. Clearly, COVID-19 has consumed our lives and our news cycle the past several weeks — and it’s about to do the same to our health care system.

The situation in Italy provides a sobering glimpse of what could be in store for the United States in the coming days. Hospitals are overwhelmed, medical equipment is limited and medical staff are being overworked. This devastating example may soon be our reality, with the U.S. ranking first in the world for COVID-19 cases, a number which will only continue to grow. Cases double every three days, a figure which is prompting hospitals to find as many beds as they can to prepare for an onslaught of critical patients. The 74,000 intensive care unit beds that operated in 2018 are insufficient to handle the coming crisis. And just as the world has not stopped turning, medical issues unrelated to COVID-19 have not ceased. Cardiac arrests, cancer and childbirth will not simply yield to the viral event, and our medical system cannot divert all resources to fighting the virus without neglecting the needs of millions of Americans.

Overwhelmed health care infrastructure is not the only thing threatening America’s health — with the country focused on COVID-19, players with ulterior motives are presented an opportunity to discreetly alter health care for the worse. As difficult as it may be, we must remain vigilant and motivated in refusing to allow those in power to take advantage of this crisis by reducing health care accessibility for marginalized people. We cannot forget, even as we face a public health crisis, that health care is a human right we must always fight to protect. 

Just as many states, including Michigan, have ordered citizens to avoid all nonessential social interaction, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has urged that all “nonessential elective procedures” be canceled or delayed during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, typifying all non-urgent procedures as “elective” is a dangerous move for health care rights after the crisis. The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of an “elective” procedure are those that are medically unnecessary, such as cosmetic plastic surgery. But the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ list of postponable procedures includes colonoscopies and other endoscopies, cataract surgery and even low-risk cancer surgeries, all of which are rarely considered “unnecessary.”

One supposedly “nonessential” branch of medical care will likely get little mention by the Trump Administration — gender-affirming surgeries for transgender and non-gender conforming individuals. The pandemic has shed light on how these necessary procedures are still considered “elective” by many practitioners, policy-makers and medical institutions. Even in normal circumstances, these marginalized individuals often have their health needs invalidated and their procedures significantly postponed — sometimes for years — with devastating consequences. For trans patients that are already fighting to have their procedures considered medically necessary, allowing those in power to conflate gender-related surgeries as “elective” could present a dangerous blow to trans health rights. We need to make it absolutely clear that the term “nonessential” only applies within the limits of this crisis. And while we can acknowledge that delaying these procedures is a reasonable measure given the circumstances, we should also hold space for the anger and disappointment felt by those impacted and provide extra support during this difficult time. Most importantly, we must remain dedicated to advocating for these procedures to be considered essential after the crisis is over; they must be attended to in a timely manner, covered by public or private insurance and treated as valid by health care providers and systems.

Another already stigmatized medical issue exacerbated by the pandemic is abortion services. Already, state officials in Ohio and Texas have capitalized on this crisis and the “nonessential” mandate to further their anti-choice agenda. They claim to act under the initiative to preserve medical resources for COVID-19 care, but their true motives are incredibly transparent given their recent efforts to severely limit and penalize the right to choose. Their categorization of abortions as nonessential goes directly against a recent statement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists which deems abortion “an essential component of comprehensive health care,” one which must be maintained during this crisis. Moreover, these procedures use relatively few medical resources and are inherently time-sensitive. For now, Planned Parenthood is fighting back against these dangerous mandates. 

Unfortunately, Ohio and Texas are just two of several states which have been relentlessly chipping away at women’s rights, and more states may follow their example in the future. As such, we must be prepared to continue supporting Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers throughout the duration of the crisis, ensuring women have access to essential health care services and making it clear to lawmakers that their efforts to take advantage of a crisis to diminish human rights have not gone unnoticed, nor will they continue without a fight.

Facing the reality of a global health crisis can certainly make finding motivation difficult, but even as we are socially isolated, our interest in the common good can bring us together. Although we are physically apart, we can stand in solidarity for the right to health care. The forces working against human rights have not yielded to this crisis — in fact, many have found increased mobility as the global community is focused elsewhere. We, too, must mobilize, fighting against those who would take advantage of the crisis and working to fix the issues revealed by this pandemic. The world has not stopped moving forward — neither should we.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.

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