During a “Good Morning America” segment on January 7, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said it was “encouraging news” that in a study on the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination, a majority of the fatalities occurred in people with “at least four comorbidities” who were “unwell to begin with” (Good Morning America). Walensky was criticized for minimizing the deaths of chronically ill and disabled people. The comment was another example of ableism in healthcare.
“The fact that we’re supposed to just shrug [and] accept as inevitable the deaths of disabled [and] chronically ill people is monstrous,” said Molly Conger in a tweet. “But I think a lot of people are confused about who these ‘sick people’ are. It’s almost everyone.”
• Read the stories on the #NoBodyIsDisposable and #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy hashtags by disabled people who have shared their experiences during the pandemic.
• Donate to organizations like Autistic People of Color Fund, Autoimmune Community Institute, The National Alliance of Multicultural Disabled Advocates, and Neighborhood Access supporting and providing accessible services to disabled and immunocompromised people.
• Neighborhood Access is helping those who need help scheduling a COVID-19 PCR test or a vaccine appointment.
In the U.S, 6 out of 10 adults have a chronic disease and 40% of adults have two or more of those chronic conditions (CDC). Chronic diseases and other medical conditions like depression, a recent or current pregnancy, a history of smoking, and hypertension are considered high-risk factors for severe COVID-19 outcomes (CDC).
Framing someone with a medical condition as being “unwell” or in poor health is a mischaracterization. A combination of any of these conditions, or comorbidities, doesn’t guarantee a death sentence or poor quality of life. Even so, one’s health status doesn’t determine whether their death is significant. The indifference towards who has died from an infectious disease reveals the administration’s priorities because an ableist healthcare system ranks who deserves life. Thinking it’s “encouraging news” when the majority of lives lost come from a population that was largely ignored when rolling out information, policies, and services is the result of ableism in healthcare and politics.
The ranking of the value and worthiness of human life is known as necropolitics. “The closer you are to dominant power, the more your life is worth. In the United States, if you’re a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender, wealthy, Christian man, this is great news for you. But the further away you are from those axes of privilege, the less your life is worth” (Teen Vogue). It explains why state and federal-level officials at the start of the pandemic were content to sacrifice the elderly and those with serious health risks for the sake of restarting the economy (Washington Post).
People of color with disabilities are disproportionately affected during the pandemic. Twenty-five percent of Black Americans have a disability, compared to 20% of white Americans (CDC), and make up 36% of Americans in poverty. Because of this, they have difficulty getting necessary health services and treatment (The Atlantic).
In June 2020, Michael Hickson, a Black man with quadriplegia, died of COVID-19 when doctors decided to terminate treatment because they doubted he would have a “quality of life” if he survived (National Disability Institute).
Hickson’s story aligns with that of other disabled and elderly people who were denied care because they were said to have a “low quality of life” or it would be a “waste of valuable PPE” to test them for COVID-19. Others were sent “home for palliative or comfort care” based on disabilities and not their medical condition (NPR).
In the U.S., 82.4% of physicians said that people with significant disabilities have worse quality of life than non-disabled people. Thirty-five percent said they knew little to nothing about their legal obligations to their patients under the American with Disabilities Act, and 68.4% felt they were at risk of ADA lawsuits (Health Affairs, Health Affairs).
Even getting information was exclusionary. In May 2021 the CDC and the Administration for Community Living created a first-of-its-kind national hotline to connect people with disabilities to information and services regarding vaccinations. The Disability Information and Access Line is meant to help those “overcome barriers to vaccination” wasn’t available until six months after the initial vaccine rollout (ACL).
And when it comes to vaccination, disabled people are more likely to report difficulties in getting vaccinated than those without a disability, despite endorsing vaccination at a higher rate (CDC).
Being “encouraged” by the deaths of those considered to be “unwell” after excluding them from the COVID-19 strategy is violent. It illustrates why CDC Director Walensky’s comment was not an error but rather verbal confirmation that chronically ill and disabled people are just collateral damage in a healthcare system that was designed to ignore them.
• Preventing chronically ill and disabled people from care because of an assumption that they have a “low quality of life” is one way ableism in healthcare presents itself.
• Having multiple medical conditions or a disability doesn’t determine one’s health status.
• A majority of U.S. adults have a chronic disease or medical condition that increases their risk of severe COVID-19.