"It only kills the elderly and those with underlying health conditions."
Updated: Apr 21
So many of you said it. I read it in the news countless times. I can understand the need to comfort yourself at a time like this, but must it be at the expense of the elderly, sick and disabled? Does someone's death matter less because they were already sick or old? Is the loss of these lives acceptable to you?
Disabled people tried to tell you from the start. We tried to tell you exactly why this choice of language scared us. We tried to tell you that sick and disabled people would be amongst some of the first people considered acceptable collateral, but you didn’t want to hear it. Your abled privilege blinded you from seeing how this would affect sick and disabled people disproportionately. We tried to tell you how triggering the coverage and conversation was for us. You didn’t want to hear it. We held space for your feelings because we knew how it felt to be scared and isolated, but so few of you were willing to do the same in return.
When lockdown started, sick and disabled people tried to help advise you on how best to handle the isolation, but you couldn’t accept that there might be something we knew that you didn’t. Our disabled experience didn’t matter because this was your time, this was your suffering and you didn’t want to be reminded that some of us live this way all the time.
“It only kills those with underlying conditions”, you told yourselves. Meanwhile, your sick and disabled friends feared for their lives. And as for the elderly? They’d probably die of the flu anyway, right? But who are you to decide that one life holds more or less value than another? Who are you to decide whose death is considered an acceptable loss?
I am still in the very early days of my disability journey, and as a white, hetero, cis woman I occupy a position of immense privilege. My life would no doubt be considered worth saving on the very basis of those things alone: my cisgender, my youth and my whiteness. And yet, even from this position of privilege I can see how society devalues disabled lives. The world has made this clear in its response to the pandemic. The accommodations that disabled people were told were impossible for years are suddenly manageable for abled people. Remote working, remote education, telephone consultations with doctors - all of this, which was denied to so many disabled people for so long, is now at your disposal. And what about the recognition and acknowledgement that being housebound and isolated negatively impacts your mental health? Suddenly at the forefront of everybody’s minds. Yet when we tried to tell you about our isolation, about how it affected us, you didn’t want to hear it. We were called fakers. Attention seekers. Benefits scroungers. You secretly thought that we must’ve done something wrong to end up this way. You comforted yourselves with the thought that it would never happen to you.
Now would be a great time to listen to disabled people and yet all the think-pieces about isolation and lockdown seem to be from abled folk. This is truly an area of expertise for so many of us, but no one is approaching us to ask for our input. I’ve seen so many of my disabled and chronically ill friends putting out advice pieces to help everyone deal with isolation, but no one is offering to pay us for our labour and our knowledge. We thought that you might respect our experience on this, after all some of us have been doing it for decades, but you didn’t want to know. We hoped that experiencing a taste of our lives might build more empathy. Seems so far that we were wrong.
I hope to be proven wrong.
“It’s only those with underlying medical conditions that are seriously affected”, the papers wrote. I read that and my heart broke. I read that and I wondered, if I died now at 32 years old, would you be comforted by the fact that I already had health problems? Does the fact that I am sick, unemployed and housebound mean that my death would somehow mean less? What is it exactly about an abled life that makes it more valuable than a sick one? Would the grief of my loved ones be less profound, simply because I lived in a sick body? Is it merely ableism that has led us to this kind of thinking or is it capitalism too? Is it the fact that many of our disabled lives aren’t viewed as being as 'productive', as 'profitable' and therefore as valuable as your abled ones?
The truth of the matter is that despite the heartwarming campaigns and the hashtags that would claim otherwise, we are not 'all in this together'. Sick, elderly, disabled, fat, queer, BIPOC, refugees, migrants, low paid workers. These are some of the people/communities who will bear the effects of this pandemic the worst. These are the communities that will suffer worse institutional, systemic prejudice than ever before. These are the people having DNR forms thrust upon them, asking them to “take one for the team” by dying, basically. What is the thinking here? That we couldn’t possibly risk losing a young, abled or white life over that of an elderly, disabled or black life? This is eugenics.
We don’t get to decide whose life is more precious, and nor should medical professionals have to be put in the position of choosing. This is not how triage should work.
The people who occupy these margins have dreams and ambitions just like you. They have lives to live, no matter how small or inconsequential they may seem in comparison to your busy, healthy lives. They have friends and families who love and rely on them, people who would feel their loss profoundly. Their loved ones would grieve, in the same way your loved ones would grieve for you.
They are no less worthy of a life than anyone else. Their lives have meaning and value. They have so much to offer the world. They occupy an important space in society, and in the lives of the people who love them.
Nobody is disposable.