COVID-19, Disability and Ableism: Nine Months Deep

The US reported 125,220 coronavirus patients in hospitals Wednesday, the most ever on a given day during the pandemic, according to The COVID Tracking Project. Death, destruction, polarization and a disregard for human life have become norms. 

Those who aim to live normal lives despite pandemic argue that there's no need to alter their behaviors because healthy people fight the virus, and that it's only old people and those with underlying conditions who struggle to do so. It’s an argument that undermines the lives of whole groups of people. Old people. Those with underlying conditions. People with disabilities. 

I have experienced ableism my entire life, but never as direct, open and unshameful as this. 

Society has deemed the disability community and other vulnerable groups expendable, through cost-benefit analysis. The costs of people with disabilities outweigh the benefits, society says, and few people will be impacted or speak out about the destruction that it doesn’t matter. But the pandemic exposing that mindset,I hope, changes things for the future.

Nonetheless, the fact that this is a discussion speaks to where we are in the disability rights movement. We have so far to go. People simplify things too much. Vulnerability does not need to be as much of a hindrance as we make it out to be. Vulnerability should not mean expendability. Caring for the vulnerable should not be controversial, rather it should be considered a civic duty. 

The vulnerable have been ignored forever, though that rubs against the said values of America, Christianity and humanity. Suddenly, COViD-19 exposed how much people don't care about protecting them, protecting me, protecting us. 

But when we try to calculate the value of life, we find that it's impossible. We now have people trying to calculate its value -- while claiming to have a sense of morality -- essentially through one's potential impact on society, arguing that their right to freedom is more important, more sacred than another human being’s right to life.

I understand people's concerns about a nationwide shutdown, but calculating the values of people's lives is one of the most morally-bankrupt things I have ever heard. But it makes sense coming from a country that has never valued people with disabilities, strived to institutionalize us for years and took 500 years to pass legislation directly supporting us. 

People want to point to those in power not setting good enough precedents. I think that's a slice of the issue, but not the whole thing. I think it falls on the American culture of selfishness and allowing and expecting vulnerable populations to fend for themselves in exchange for freedom.

The reality is that we're all going to get old and deal with some kind of disability at some point, and to ignore that is disgraceful. For some reason, we've forgotten about any kind of social contract during this pandemic. We've had a group of people aim to draw curves of supply and demand for each individual to determine how much their life is worth.

So when we get into the habit of trying to figure out what lives are worth, we navigate into dangerous territory. Starting simply, with the “old people are going to die anyway” trope, aren't we all going to die eventually, regardless of COViD-19? At what age do we become expendable? And how does that change for people born with disabilities or underlying conditions? What about those diagnosed later in life? Do we become disposable before we touch the earth or the second we become disabled? 

Those questions need to be answered if we're going to say that “only old people and those with health problems struggle with COVID-19” therefore healthy, young people should live normal lives. But there aren't any answers because the preciousness of life cannot be abandoned. 

Each of us has less than a century to reach our goals, and quite literally, we have no idea when  our clock will run out. We have sympathy when there is death, but it's for those left behind, not for those taken. We want to be reactive instead of proactive, mourn with people who have lost loved ones instead of preventing the deaths. We want to take advantage of life and what we have going for us, not to support those less fortunate. To argue COViD-19 isn't a big deal because healthy people survive is to devalue lives based on vulnerability.