FOSS conferences and COVID

Originally Published 20230124

When I was a teenager oh so long ago, I would walk with my father down to the shops in the City Centre. It was a half-hour walk to the centre. Along our route there several back streets intersected with the main road. They were cobbled.

I had moved to the city a year before. One day on our way back I asked my father a question.

"Do you find you still keep scanning the cobbles?"

My Father paused in the street for a moment. "Sometimes I still do."

Why did my father and I keep scanning cobbles? They were hazardous. Not to us, but to a relative who was no longer in our lives. I could not stop scanning those cobbles.

As I've said before, I grew up in a disabled household. I grew up having to scan ahead for hostile physical infrastructure that could harm my relative. I grew up watching ableism in action. As I got older I also discovered my own internalised ableism.

I grew up with a mixture of empathy and shame. I wasn't ashamed of my relative's disability. When I was born, they had been disabled for years. They didn't seem different from my other relatives. It was normal to me. I was embarrassed by my relative's public frustration with the outside world. Now I'm ashamed of my internalised ableism.

I couldn't understand why they were frustrated by strangers trying to help them up in the street when they fell over. Or why my relative got angry when people patronised and spoke down to them as if they were stupid. I was a child, and I saw they were trying to be kind. What I didn't understand was the performative helping. Or how they would look at me and wondered if I was disabled in some way. I didn't see how they took away my relative's agency in managing their own life. Including when they fell over because they slipped on some cobbles or other hostile pedestrian infrastructure.

As if the disability was catching and hadn't been caused by a major life-changing event.

My relative could walk. They couldn't walk well as their balance was impeded. When they were angry they could walk at high speed. I remember being scared that they would fall over as their walk was highly unbalanced. They didn't want a stick or a wheelchair. As long as they could walk they would. They resented having to rely on someone's arm. Their agency and independence were highly important to them.

Every day my relative had to confront a world with hostile infrastructure and ableism at every turn. Including from their own family.

Our small town was old and some of the backstreets had cobbles and in places very high pavements. I learned to look ahead, to scan those cobbles as we walked to our local shop. Considering a longer route as it was safer. Although those streets had their own trip hazards. As soon as I was old enough to walk to the shops, I followed my father's example, scanning ahead, preparing in case of a fall. Stopping the bystanders from intervening if there was a fall. To let my relative get up in their own time. On occasion, it wasn't enough. Sometimes there needed to be a hospital visit. We did everything we could to ensure this didn't happen. But we also didn't try to steer my relative to be safer. To get a stick or a wheelchair.

We assessed the risk, but we let my relative assess the risk for themself.

It was so ingrained in us that years later in the city, we couldn't stop scanning the cobbles. We couldn't stop the risk assessment.

Sadly I have to assess a different risk now. In March 2020, my husband and I caught COVID. I was asymptomatic. When we got home I had a mild fever.

A few months later, my husband developed Long COVID. He was very fit, and he ran every day. He aimed to start training again for a marathon. He lifted heavy weights. Now he was weak as a kitten.

Then 6 months later I was bedridden. We don't know what it was that poleaxed me. A new infection of COVID? The flu? We have no idea.

But now we are a household with two people suffering from Long COVID. During the worse of it, I was convinced I could feel the virus rewriting everything that made me the person I am. I was scared that I'd never come back. I still cry a little when I remember that time.

The vaccine and boosters helped amazingly, but I'm still not recovered years down the line. I may never recover. I can't risk another infection, it could kill me. Or kill my husband. I haven't physically seen my father for four years. So far he's managed not to be infected. It could kill him. I don't want to be responsible for killing my father.

So every week when I go to the shops, and it's only once a week, I mask up and hope it's enough. That we won't be infected. Very few people in the village where I live now mask up. My balance is variable at times. I now scan the cobbles for myself. We now have to make a risk assessment every time we go into the outside world. Or deal with the postman.

We also now have to make this risk assessment for our professional lives. We work from home. However, we need to publicise our project. I like talking to people in person. I miss being able to hug my friends. I'm a hugger.

For me to be able to do that again, and not risk losing my husband or him losing me, I need to be safe. I need to reduce the chances of infection.

So when I see conferences not considering mandating people to mask up, it makes me sad. It makes me angry. It shows yet another systematic community failure in FOSS.

I'm a signatory of the PHPLEDGE. It asks for conferences to put in place safety precautions so that people like me can go to conferences. It's also good for people who at the moment haven't been disabled by COVID. Imagine how you'd feel if someone you loved was disabled by this because you didn't take the steps to protect yourself and protect them. You may not have had severe COVID, but if you've been infected, or near someone infected, ask yourself; "Who did you pass it on to? Who did they pass it on to? Who did you harm?

Who did you kill?

It's a question that haunts us. We caught it in Singapore, in March 2020, we were on the last flight to go out, and my husband presented as symptomatic just after checking. We had to get a doctor's note to fly. The Doctor cleared us to fly. He masked up, but I didn't present, I didn't need a doctor's note. The authorities nearly sent me on to fly with my husband being left behind. Which was very frightening.

Who did I kill on that flight? Who did I disable? Did the people on that flight get infected by me, who did they then infect? I failed to scan the cobbles for myself. I didn't realise the cobbles were there. The virus was new. The cobbles were hidden.

Now I'm scanning the cobbles to prevent a hospitalisation.

For any conference I go to talk at in person, I not only have to consider the venue. I have to consider several factors now. If I need to fly, should I be doing that not just from a public health perspective but a climate perspective? I then have to think about where is everyone else coming from? Are they masking? Where are they eating food? Who are they eating it with? What about the hotel? What COVID protocols if any are they following, what about other residents of the hotel? I know I'll miss something, and one slip is all that COVID needs to take everything away from you.

So I need the community to help. To mask up, to take those precautions. For events and people to sign the #phpledge

At the moment it's pretty slim pickings. I'm very disheartened at the lack of consideration for those of us who miss conferences and can't go. Although when I hear there's been a super spreader event I do feel sad and also angry. There's no satisfaction in being vindicated. There are feelings of ennui and despair because people can't seem to scan ahead for the dangers. The FOSS community doesn't care enough to scan the cobbles.

COVID isn't over.

Ignoring the problem won't make it go away. Although Organisers ignoring this does show ableism. It shows the sheer lack of empathy for me and for others before me, who have had to do risk assessments like this for years before COVID.

I grew up with people wondering if I was disabled, was there some inherited disability? It was almost as if they were scared they'd catch the disability somehow.

Well, folks, with COVID disability is catchable. COVID doesn't care if you think it's harmless. COVID doesn't care if you think it and vaccines are a conspiracy theory. COVID doesn't care if you don't like being told to wear a mask and you don't want to wear one. You may get away with catching it for the first few times, but the potential damage piles up.

As a movement, we are meant to be about Freedom and Openness. Sometimes you need to consider the overall freedom of humanity over your own needs. What will you do if your hospital is overloaded because a bunch of folks went to events? What will you do if you lose a family member due to someone else's carelessness?

Who's disability will you cause? Whose death should be laid at your door?

A failure of Community

Yet again, I get the impression that FOSS doesn't really believe in equality. Especially if it's difficult to implement, or to get people to understand the issue.

Yet again, people express resentment that some of us are asking openly for some consideration of our health and safety.

Or perhaps Organisers don't like people asking them to enable that equality of access.

Are we not asking nicely enough? Are we bringing negativity into the discussion? Perhaps organisers wish we'd just shut up and fuck off.

You don't want to scan the cobbles, to look ahead for the danger. You just want to have fun, to move forward. To leave the rest of us in the dust. Because we got sick and weak. It's just too much hassle for you to care enough and to change things. To make the effort.

Because from where I'm standing, it seems like you'd prefer we just stay at home so you don't have to face the reality of our existence or what COVID could do to you.

It seems to be too hard for the volunteers and attendees of conferences like Everything Open to consider masking up so that ALL of the community can attend. Including those in Melbourne who have to be careful. I'm disappointed in Linux Australia for not enforcing a mask mandate. If you can't find a safe enough single venue, don't run it in person. Linux Australia was one of the leading lights for inclusivity. Sadly that doesn't extend to the immunocompromised, COVID sufferers, or their carers.

Although I shouldn't just single out Linux Austrailia, FOSDEM is pretty infamous for the Fosdem flu. It's COVID policy won't be enough either.

Other Conferences like Pycon Italia get it. But perhaps that's because the Python Community worked hard to understand safety issues back when there needed to be more conferences with a COC. I now wonder how much of the Python Community in Australia ensured that Linux Conf AU earned its reputation for inclusivity. Are Linux Australia and the Organisers of Everything Open listening to that part of the Community now? I'm not sure they are. Everything Open didn't have a COVID policy until very late 2022. Masks aren't mandated, and in an email the contact for Everything Open said they weren't going mandate masks as the event was being held at a venue with another event. Linux Austrailia will not mandate masks unless the law tells them to. What a stark difference between Everything Open and Pycon Italia there.

I get it, I don't particularly want to be thinking about #COVID either. It's now my reality, for the long term.

I'm used to encountering ableism. I grew up watching it in action from the age of 3. I'm used to people speaking behind my family's back, gossiping about what is wrong with us. Pitying us. Taking away our agency and othering us, isolating us from the greater community.

I'm used to people not scanning the cobbles. Decades later, I understand my relative's anger at family, friends, and strangers. It hurts a lot more when the ableism is from a group of people that you thought understood that community needs to include everyone.