by Sophie Trist
During a recent video interview, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, “The overwhelming number of deaths — over 75% occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really, these are people who were unwell to begin with, and yes, really encouraging news in the context of Omicron.” I don’t believe that Dr. Walensky intended to dehumanize and dismiss the disabled and chronically ill people who are most at risk from COVID-19, but her words came across as cruel, cavalier, and insensitive to many in the disability community, who have felt disregarded and discriminated against in nearly every facet of the pandemic response. By calling the fact that most people who are dying are already unwell “encouraging news,” she is devaluing the lives of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, whether intentionally or not.
Dr. Walensky’s remarks echo eugenicist rhetoric and healthcare rationing policies that have terrified people with disabilities since the beginning of the pandemic. Add to that the many ways in which vaccination efforts are leaving disabled people behind, and it’s easy to see that we’re still an afterthought when it comes to responding to COVID-19. Each victim of this virus, including those with comorbidities that Dr. Walensky speaks of so casually, had a community who loved them and unquantifiable human dignity. People with disabilities are tired of being seen as acceptable sacrifices.
Disability justice activists and allies, led by Imani Barbarin, hit back with the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy on Twitter. The entire hashtag is worth reading, because it exemplifies the righteous anger, yearning for justice, and exhaustion many disabled people are feeling right now. One user asked, “Why should we not care if people who are dying were unwell to begin with? I am unwell. My friends, my family, my community is largely made up of people who are unwell. Are we not worth another lockdown? Are we not worth protecting? And why is that?”
Other disabled people assert that their lives should not be seen as disposable just so people can “get back to normal.” “Just because I am sick doesn’t mean it’s okay if I die. It’s disgusting that people see people like me as just necessary casualties so they can go to a concert.”
Characterizing the Omicron variant as mild is dangerous because for many disabled and chronically ill people, COVID will never be mild. Another user spoke to the sense of exhaustion that comes when you constantly have to justify the value of your life. “I honestly don’t have it in me right now to justify why #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy beyond this. I exist. I care. I love. I matter. That governmental health authorities are explicitly stating otherwise and no nondisabled/non-high-risk people seem to care is devastating.”
The truth is that none of us are safe until the most vulnerable among us are safe. Ableism is not limited to acts of aggressive violence. Language like that used by Dr. Walensky is extremely dehumanizing and leads to both intentional and unintentional discrimination. All disabled lives are worthy, not because of the work we do, but because we are human beings. A pandemic response that does not value the lives of America’s sickest citizens has no basis in social justice. A consistent and unwavering belief in the worth and dignity of every person, no matter how ill or disabled, must guide our fight against COVID-19.