“I don’t feel protected”: How a lack of COVID-19 protections is impacting mental health

People who are COVID-aware or at high risk discuss the mental health burden of staying safe.

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      Chantal Moore knows what it’s like to fear for your child’s life. 

      Her elementary school-age daughter was hospitalized with a respiratory infection as a toddler and nearly died. 

      “It’s absolutely terrifying,” Moore told the Straight. “Even if your child is hospitalized, and then recovers, it’s still a traumatic experience.” 

      Respiratory illnesses have been a concern for the Vancouver-based family ever since. 

      When BC lifted mask mandates in schools and public spaces in March, Moore’s daughter said she “felt safer at home this year.” She’s now being homeschooled, as it felt difficult to mitigate the risk of serious illness. 

      While the province was applauded in the early days of the pandemic for its response, it dropped mask mandates, capacity limits and vaccine passport measures in spring 2022. Since April, there have been no public health measures in the province to prevent the spread of COVID-19 beyond a vaccine booster program.

      Provincial health office Dr. Bonnie Henry  said at the time that removing public health measures in schools was a return to “a more normal environment to support [children] in development and growth.” The message was that returning to normal, in schools and in other public places, was more important than preventing the spread of illness.

      For many people who are immunocompromised, disabled–or protecting a loved one who is– or simply do not wish to catch COVID-19, removing public health measures has led to a huge mental health strain. 

      “Having no protections has definitely worsened my mental health. I don’t feel protected,” Moore said. Besides her daughter, her father is also at high-risk for COVID-19: he has been in hospital and then long-term care since he caught COVID earlier in the pandemic. Moore said that, since contracting COVID, he can no longer walk or talk.

      “I’m still visiting my dad in long-term care often and so, you know, ‘Am I going to bring the virus? Is he going to get reinfected?’ It’s definitely worsened [my] mental health.” 

      Kayli Jamieson, who developed long COVID after an infection in December 2021, said she has had to take medical leave from her post-grad degree and her work due to ongoing symptoms like fatigue, brain and body tremors. 

      “I’ve developed clinical depression and anxiety, because when you’re robbed of your previous bodily autonomy, there is a lot to get acquainted with,” she said. “There’s a lot of grief in that process, and further grief when you’re witnessing ableism in this society.” 

      Jamieson said that coping with a new chronic illness was difficult enough, but that was exacerbated by the lack of care other people seemed to display. 

      When she started a petition asking for Simon Fraser University to keep the mask mandate on campus, she was met with “a lot of backlash and online hate.” 

      “That was what definitely shocked me most,” she said, “the notion that disposability and death is fine.” 

      In November, Dr. Henry rejected calls to re-implement a mask mandate, saying people could make decisions on where to wear masks “where it makes sense.” But masks work best at preventing illness when everybody is wearing them.  

      “We reach a collective benefit of masking when everybody is,” Jamieson said. “There’s only so much that one person wearing a mask can do.”

      Along with the stress that getting COVID-19 again could worsen her symptoms, Jamieson also had to deal with the practicalities of avoiding getting sick. When Jamieson took transit, she avoided rush hour, waited for quieter SkyTrain carriages, opened windows on buses and took a CO2 monitor with her. 

      The burden of protection “is disproportionately placed on disabled, immunocompromised people,” she said. Having to make that much extra effort “further marginalizes” already vulnerable communities. 

      There’s also the social isolation. In the beginning of the pandemic, almost everyone struggled with not being able to see family and friends due to the danger of getting sick. Vaccines may lower the severity of sickness, but people continue to die from COVID-19. The risk hasn’t gone away, and continuing to take precautions to stay safe can put people out of step with the current province-supported laissez-faire approach. 

      Kerri Coombs, a community organizer with grassroots advocacy group Protect Our Province BC, told the Straight many members had been struggling with the fact their activism did not seem to influence policy. 

      “We all worked really, really hard last year to try and pressure the province to introduce evidence-based public health precautions,” they said. “When the province just threw caution to the wind … a lot of us got pretty discouraged. There was a lot of burnout.” 

      “When you are ignored by the policymakers, after making your best argument and putting up your best fight, it’s disheartening,” she added. 

      Protect Our Province provided a strong support network for Coombs, as people dealing with the same worries and stresses were able to connect and vent shared frustrations over public health measures not aligning with the best way to prevent illness and death. 

      “A person who is in isolation, who doesn’t have that kind of support network … if you don’t have others around you, you can start to feel super crazy, like it’s gaslighting,” they said.

      So far in Canada, at least 48,000 people are confirmed to have died from COVID-19. According to Our World In Data, more people have died so far in 2022 (18,213) than in 2020 (15,736) or 2021(14,545). The deadliest year of the pandemic to-date is the one in which more public health officials decided that the pandemic was over. 

      Moore would love to send her daughter back to school, but the risks of catching COVID, flu, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) means it’s impossible unless there are protections in place. 

      “I’ve approached so many people: the district, I’ve written the principal, I’ve met with the school teachers … I reached out to my MLA, who is [now-Premier] David Eby,” Moore said. She wants schools to improve ventilation and filtration, whether with HEPA filters or more concrete upgrades. 

      “I met with [Eby] last year over Zoom. I said, ‘Could we please do something about these classrooms and make it safer for these kids?’ I was told he’ll get back to me, and I never did hear back.” 

      The province has said it has invested over $166.5 million in improving classroom ventilation since the beginning of the pandemic, and the federal government has promised the province $11.9 million for similar work. It is unclear how the federal money will be spent.

      COVID-aware people aren’t asking anyone to stop having fun. They just want that fun to be done in a way that doesn’t cause unchecked spread of a potentially deadly virus.

      “This summer, I was really having to contend with seeing friends go to parties, raves, clubs, maskless everywhere, despite knowing what happened to me,” Jamieson said. She wishes their freedom didn’t result in her isolation.

      “These are people that I love and care about. And they’re all just processing the trauma of the pandemic differently. It’s very life-altering for people in different ways. I’m just wishing that the lives of disabled people would be more considered.”