Since University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes announced the March 19 expiration of UNM’s indoor mask mandate at a majority of campuses and locations, members of the UNM community who are or who advocate for those who are immunocompromised are raising concerns that their safety was not taken into consideration in the decision-making process.
Soph Colson, a UNM student on medical leave and a member of Crip Lib, a disability advocacy group on campus, said she feels dropping the mask mandate is dangerous to disabled students.
“The best social justice practice is to accommodate society around the most vulnerable impacted, and that would be just disabled people on campus, immunocompromised people on campus, the people of color on campus, and UNM is not doing that,” Colson said.
In Crip Lib meetings, students have been able to voice their concerns about the COVID-19 protocols in a safe place, and many have said they already feel as if they are in fight-or-flight mode with the nature of the pandemic and in-person classes, according to Colson.
“We've had some people come in who have also said they're in fight-or-flight while in class,” Colson said. ”They can't focus or concentrate because they're constantly sitting there anxious, sitting around so many people in such a tight close classroom,” Colson said.
Alyssa Martinez, another member of Crip Lib, said they feel as though the timing of dropping the mandate leaves many without alternative options and forced to deal with the conditions.
“The decision to lift this mask mandate midway through the semester, when all of us have already paid our tuition, when we've already went out of our way to get housing near the University or whatever the case may be, to then jeopardize our lives by refusing to keep these mask mandates in place, it's just a slap in the face and shows how little that this university who claims to care (does) ... about its disabled and chronically ill population, which is such a large base of our campus,” Martinez said.
The University is doing a disservice to the immunocompromised population, and as long as the University remains quiet on these issues, self-education is important, according to leader of Lobo Prevention Pack and Student Health and Counseling Health Education and Outreach Manager Tiffany Martinez-Durant.
“We also have to be cognizant of people who are immunocompromised, who cannot get the vaccine,” Martinez-Durant said. “I wish people educated themselves more than just took (the University) at face value.”
Colson said, ideally, they would like to have the University host a forum to talk to disabled students about what they want to see in regard to COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I'd like to see them first sit down and have an open forum of disabled students and immunocompromised students and mentally ill students,” Colson said.
Colson also mentioned the greater effect this can have on disabled students who feel deterred from going to school for their own personal safety because of decreased precautions.
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“They're acting as a class barrier as to who can get access to different paying jobs,” Colson said. “That also means that there will be less disabled people in health care, and that's exactly where we need to be represented.”
Martinez-Durant said UNM isn’t ready to move on from masking and all of New Mexico needs to continue to take COVID-19 seriously. This is particularly relevant for the immunocompromised community, for whom COVID-19 can lead to more serious illnesses or higher mortality rates.
“New Mexico is still (in the) red,” Martinez-Durant said. “When are we going to stop normalizing death as something we have to live with when … we can prevent this from getting worse?”
Martinez said dropping mask mandates is not the solution to getting through this pandemic. Instead, collective care and action needs to be prioritized.
“The reality is that we're not getting out of this pandemic until we can all figure out how to care for one another,” Martinez said.
Natalie Jude is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @natalaroni
Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maddogpukite