What’s the main thing being reported about the coronavirus (COVID-19) besides “wash your hands with soap and hot water as long as it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’”? The reassurance that you’re not really at risk of dying of the virus if you’re young and have no underlying health conditions. Unless there are specific resources attached to that statement, we need to recognize that for what it is. It is not “reassuring” to tell people that “only” the elderly or those with underlying health conditions are at risk. It is ageist and ableist.
This sentiment basically states that old people and those who have underlying health conditions aren’t worth protecting and that life is worth preserving only if you’re young and healthy. In a society drenched in capitalism, it’s understandable that this message might be the most common, but those of us who advocate for and are part of vulnerable communities need to stand up against this kind of messaging and for a society and an emergency-response plan that protects, plans for and includes everyone.
If you are or want to be an ally of the disability community and to the elderly (according to the CDC, that’s anyone over 60, at least as it relates to the present pandemic), here is what you can do:
First, point out that “reassuring” messaging such as “only the elderly or those with underlying health conditions are at risk” encourages division rather than solidarity and further isolates and marginalizes those over 60 and those with existing health conditions. Point out the ableism and ageism every time you hear messages like this.
Second, instead of letting purveyors of those messages brush past older folks and those with existing health issues, ask and keep on asking for resources specifically for those communities. This is a great opportunity for us to learn to think beyond ourselves even in times of great fear and uncertainty. This virus is a great example of how, if we don’t care for everyone as opposed to just ourselves, everyone is at risk. You may not be over 60, but you likely know someone who is. Here in King County, ground zero for the COVID-19 virus in the U.S., people 65 and older make up about 25 percent of our population and are the fastest growing segment of our population. You may not have an underlying health condition, but you probably know someone who does, whether it looks like it or not (invisible illness/disability is still illness/disability).
Third, follow all the precautions recommended by public health experts, such as those of the Seattle & King County Public Health, the Washington State Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to minimize your own exposure so you don’t inadvertently become a carrier of the illness and then pass it to those who are at higher risk. You may “only feel like you have the flu” if you get the virus, but you could pass it onto someone who it could kill.
Fourth, whenever and wherever possible, spend your money locally with smaller businesses. This is not only a good idea because of the downstream effects caused by the COVID-19 cascade of cancellations for precautionary measures. Small businesses that rely on tourists, conference attendees and other local gatherings are being hit financially, and investing in your local community is an investment in yourself. Once again, the behaviors that minimize risk or help repair and recover the damage related to COVID-19 are similar to the behaviors that promote healthy bodies and resilient local communities.
Finally and most important, join the fight for single-payer health care and guaranteed paid time off. One of the main reasons this virus continues to spread in the U.S. is because low-wage workers, particularly food-service professionals and health care aides, are paid little and have no time off so that they have to choose between starving or going to work ill. This results in exposing more people and spreading the virus. If these folks had insurance and low-wage workers had guaranteed time off, everyone would be protected.
The present pandemic is certainly revealing just how shredded our social safety net is. It is also a perfect, if anxiety-producing, illustration of the fact that, until health care is not dependent on employment and all workers have guaranteed paid time off, everyone of all ages and all health levels is in some way at risk.
Read more in the Mar. 18 - 24, 2020 issue.