Almost three years into the ongoing pandemic, New Zealanders know how to take care of each other. We have had a lot of practice. 

Disabled social impact strategist Kera Sherwood-O’Regan writes about why people committing to continued public health measures like mask wearing for those who can, is something people can do for themselves and each other - no matter the “traffic light”. 

It just makes sense. 

Many people in Aotearoa have been affected by loneliness, or poor mental health these past few years, and we have seen this particularly amongst disabled, elderly, Māori, and Pacific communities. 

Whether for our own safety or our loved ones’, thousands of us have had to remain isolated at home, severely limiting public interaction, and bearing all the social, wellbeing, and financial costs that come with it – even as the rest of the nation moved from mandated lockdowns to red, and then orange settings. 

Image description: Kera Sherwood-O'Regan, an Indigenous Ngāi Tahu/ Kāi Tahu Māori woman with light olive skin and long brown hair, sitting in a bright room with plants behind her. She is wearing a white silk blouse with floral lace detailing, and vintage tortoiseshell style glasses. She is looking directly at the camera with a relaxed but confident look on her face. Photo credit: Jason Boberg (Activate Agency)

Scrapping our already relaxed Covid precautions last Monday only increased our risk and made further isolation inevitable. Our whānau, friends, and wider society have been, and will continue to be, the poorer for our exclusion. It’s no surprise then that they want to take action. 

As a social strategist of the chronically sick and tired variety, #Mask4YourMates is a hashtag I wish I didn’t have to make. It’s also the hashtag that delivered me a faint glimmer of optimism during an otherwise crushing week. 

Seeing it tweeted out by community-minded people across Aotearoa committing to continued masking went some way to soften the blow of last week’s announcement - which, for many chronically ill people like me, signalled an indefinite extension to our isolation.

It was a reassuring reminder of the common sense and empathy of the vast majority of New Zealanders; and the sheer awesomeness of my disabled community.

Everyone is tired of the pandemic and disruption to our lives, but New Zealanders are smart enough to understand that Covid-19 isn’t over just because we wish it to be. 

We know that the antidote to Aotearoa’s “pandemic fatigue” and social isolation comes from keeping case numbers down, and ensuring that public participation is safe for everyone in the meantime.

If the government won’t deliver the public health protocols to do that, then we will do what we must to keep our people safe. #Mask4YourMates is not a call for charity, it’s a call for solidarity. We all benefit from a society where disabled people are actively valued and included.

Disabled people are used to being disappointed by pandemic policies that violate our rights, and international standards for our inclusion

Despite making up a quarter of the New Zealand population, we have, since the outset of the pandemic, been portrayed as vulnerable victims and expected losses, rather than the valuable members of society; cherished loved ones; and life-saving public health leaders we know ourselves to be. 

Our globally connected community looks out for each other. 

We have no choice but to. And since Covid-19 emerged, we looked out for everyone else too. When the public panicked about the first lockdowns, disabled people sprang into action, sharing our knowledge and experience - from PPE protocols and WFH tips, to symptom management for the masses of people newly disabled by Covid-19. 

We organised mask and grocery deliveries, and mutual financial aid before wage subsidies were announced or supermarkets offered priority delivery (oh, and we lobbied for those too). 

Disabled people have consistently contributed expert and public health advice to governments, not-for-profits, and business alike to ensure that others don’t have to experience the same struggles that we have. 

Even the globally recognised and life-saving concept of household “bubbles” was coined by one of our own - Māori epidemiologist and disabled leader, Dr Tristram Ingham.

Every single disabled and chronically ill person I know is exhausted. Not just from our regular symptoms, but from the stress of navigating a pandemic where our expertise and contributions to public safety have been repeatedly ignored, only to be proved right time and time again. 

From living in a society where our wellbeing and right to exist in public is deemed an acceptable price to pay for others’ convenience. From being viewed as “vulnerable” charity cases to being pitied or left at home, rather than respected community members, and, well… mates.

#Mask4YourMates is just one link in a long chain of disabled-led community care this pandemic. It should never have been necessary, and we shouldn’t have had to ask. But since this is where we’re at, frankly, I think it’s the least we can do for our “Team of five million”. 

Whether you know it, and whether they know it, or not, we all have mates who are at high risk for Covid-19, including every single person who has already had the virus. 

Until we have no more cases, everyone is still at some risk of Covid, and getting those numbers down takes everyone who can, doing all they can. 

Do it for your mates, do it for strangers, do it for yourself. Tweet about it or don’t. Just whatever you do, if you’re able to wear a mask, please, wear a mask.

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan is a proudly Kāi Tahu disabled social impact strategist based in Te Waipounamu. She is a National Executive Committee member for the Disabled Persons Assembly and founder of a Fibromyalgia community support group, however, views in this article are her own.

Top Image: Background from iStock, photo of Kera Sherwood-O'Regan supplied.

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