Everyone is ready for the pandemic to end. People from all walks of life want nothing more than for COVID cases to drop and for it to be safe to return to society without the risk of catching the virus. However, since the start of the pandemic, many Americans have been willing to neglect people who are immunocompromised or those with disabilities in order to eliminate restrictions or downplay the severity of the disease.
This willingness to sacrifice certain groups of individuals because the risk is lower for others was once again brought to light because of comments by the current director of the CDC. Disability advocates are speaking out on how these most recent statements are just one example of a pattern of neglect and devaluation of disabled lives.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky speaks on Onomicron deaths
On January 7, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director for the Center for Disease Control (CDC), went on Good Morning America to discuss the rising COVID cases because of the omicron variant. She discussed quarantining and the infection period, but also talked about the effectiveness of the vaccine.
As a whole, Walensky’s message was simple. In an effort to discuss the safety of vaccination, she shared data from a study of 1.2 million vaccinated people in which only 0.003 percent died from COVID-19 and many had underlying conditions. Of the people who have died after receiving the full series of vaccines against COVID-19, more than 75 percent occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities (diseases or medical conditions within a patient that is treated on top of the primary condition – in this case, COVID).
“So really, these are people who were unwell to begin with. And yes: really encouraging news in the context of Omicron,” said Walensky.
GMA has since uploaded the video. You can hear these comments around the 2:45 mark.
Disability activists call out Walensky’s problematic comments
Since the GMA interview, advocates have been speaking out against Walensky’s comments, saying that there is nothing encouraging about people who have existing conditions dying. The interview inspired Imani Barbarin, a disability rights activist, to create the #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy hashtag and to call on other people with disabilities to raise awareness of how they are valued compared to how they are treated.
“Contrary to popular belief…disabled people aren’t just data points. Every life lost was loved by someone, someone’s community member, someone’s friend. How callous to say you’re encouraged by the prospect of their deaths,” says Barbarin in one tweet, while tagging the CDC Director account.
“I know that @CDCDirector doesn’t think so, but #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy despite me not having the lobbying power of Delta,” tweeted Barbarin.
Since Barbarin started using the hashtag, others have picked it up to voice their support and neglect of people with disabilities throughout the pandemic. Twitter users have added #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy to their profiles and to their names. Instagram users have created graphics with Barbarin’s messaging. People with disabilities have shared their thoughts and experiences on TikTok through this unifying tag.
In response to the hashtag, Walensky says she was taken out of context. Certainly, if you look at her specific comments, she was focusing on how safe the vaccine is and how it decreases the population’s overall risk of death. However, the idea that unwell Americans or people with disabilities can be written off is a message that has been part of the Covid-19 pandemic before – and is a belief that many people held before 2020.
Elderly and disabled Americans were told to sacrifice for the economy
At the start of the pandemic, Americans came together with the idea of quarantining at home for a few weeks to prevent the spread in the United States. Almost immediately, some elected officials started calling for an end to these lockdowns in the name of preserving the economy. Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, gained particular notoriety for talking about how the elderly are willing to risk their health and lives in order to keep businesses open.
“Those of us who are 70 plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” said Patrick in a March 2020 interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. He emphasized this comment by saying he was “all in” on the idea that he would be willing to take a chance on his survival in exchange for keeping the economy going.
These comments created a firestorm online as older Americans spoke out against their unwillingness to sacrifice themselves to protect the financial interests of corporations. Patrick further emphasized these comments a month later, when he returned to Carlson’s show.
“I don’t want to die, nobody wants to die, but man we’ve got to take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running,” he said. At this point in the pandemic, 20,000 Texans had contracted the virus and 500 had died. Patrick used these numbers as a highlight of his discussion, pointing out that there were only 500 deaths out of 29 million people.
Since the April 2020 interview, an additional 78,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the state of Texas, with six million total cases. More than 866,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 as of January 2022.
Patrick’s comments have the same messaging that activists like Barbarin want to challenge. They highlight how some lives are valued more than others, and if you aren’t perfectly healthy, strong, and young in the United States (aka a person who is older or who has a disability) then your life is worth less.
People with disabilities should not be asked to sacrifice more
The goal of creating legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and developing other protections is to help people with disabilities live equally in society. People with disabilities should not be left out of events because accommodating them would be slightly inconvenient. They should not have to forgo organ transplants in favor of patients without disabilities. They should not have to sacrifice more than other people to fight the pandemic – especially when this sacrifice includes their lives.
The comments made by Dr. Walensky reflect a general sentiment that it doesn’t matter what people with disabilities go through because their lives aren’t as important. Barbarin, amongst other advocates, is fed up with this treatment and exhausted by the lack of care shown by people who are supposed to be protecting them. Each human matters, regardless of ability, which is why the #MyDisabledLifeIsWorthy tag has struck such an emotional chord with so many people with disabilities.