Op-Ed: Disabled People Can’t Learn to Live With COVID

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Rachel Charlton-Dailey (she/they) is an award-winning journalist specializing in health and disability. Their work is featured in publications such as Healthline, Huffpost, Metro UK, The Guardian, and Business Insider. Charlton-Dailey often uses their platform to spotlight issues that affect disabled people. Here, they explain how the idea of "returning to normal" is both unsafe and unfair to disabled people.

As we near the second anniversary of the pandemic, the virus is still rapidly spreading. But instead of remaining vigilant in the face of new variants, many people have become complacent. People are eager to return to “normal,” whether that's in business, school, work, or their social lives.

But many of us can’t do that.

There's the overwhelming sentiment that COVID-19 is something that we are all going to have to learn to live with, and that we'll all catch Omicron eventually. But for disabled and vulnerable people, like those who are immunocompromised, COVID-19 may always be extremely dangerous. Not all of us will be able to survive COVID-19. 

Where I live, in the U.K, 6 in 10 COVID-related deaths in 2020 were among disabled people. We are among the most susceptible for COVID-19, and for a while, accommodations were made that truly benefited us, ranging from remote work to virtual game nights. Now that the world is going "back to normal," however, many of these accommodations have gone away. Once again, we're getting left behind.

I feel like a big part of the reason I've not caught Omicron is that I'm essentially quarantining again while everyone else carries on with their lives. Just this week, I canceled seeing Six The Musical on tour for the fourth time since 2020. I only leave the house to walk my dog or to go to the supermarket twice a week. I'm missing my nieces grow up. All the while, it breaks my heart to see so many enjoying life on Instagram and Facebook like nothing is wrong. 

Constantly having to be vigilant is tiring. But what is equally exhausting is how much disabled people need to prove we deserve to be saved. 

It's worth noting that just like everyone else, I also feel like it’s inevitable that I’m going to contract COVID-19 at some point. The difference is that I'm terrified. I've had COVID-19 before, the first time in April 2020. I was ill for two weeks with the worst cough and chest pain I've ever experienced. My fatigue rendered me unable to leave my bed.

Now, I do what I can to stay vigilant. I'm luck that in the U.K., rapid lateral flow tests are free, so I test myself weekly. So far, I've consistently tested negative, but I'm always nervous. It doesn't help that some of the major symptoms linked to Omicron, like fatigue, sort throat, and headache, are also pretty common with lupus, which I have.

Constantly having to be vigilant is tiring. But what is equally exhausting is how much disabled people need to prove we deserve to be saved. 

On January 7, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Rochelle Walensky appeared on Good Morning America to discuss a new CDC study. The research revealed that out of 1.2 million people who were vaccinated between December 2020 and October 2021, just 0.015% had developed severe illness, and only 0.003% had died. 

Walensky was asked, "Is it time to start rethinking how we're living with this virus given that it's here to stay?” To me, her replying was chilling:

 "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."

To the disabled community, this felt like a final nail in the coffin. Yes, there are deaths, but the head of the CDC thinks it’s encouraging that these were only people who were already unwell. It's as if she were saying, "Well, they were going to die anyway."

Following this, the hashtag #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy was borne and amassed thousands of tweets. At first, it was a devastating read. We were angry. But slowly, something else emerged: the disabled community pulled together like it always does. We demanded accountability.

 Currently, Walensky has not apologized for her comments, but disabled people will not forget this.

For disabled and vulnerable people, the pandemic has been incredibly isolating, not just because we have had to physically isolate, but because we have realized that many consider our safety little more than an inconvenience. 

Disabled people shouldn’t have to convince you their lives are worthy of saving. The fact that we have less of a chance of surviving COVID-19 should be cause for governments to protect us more, not a reason to let us die. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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