Coronavirus comments expose underbelly of ageism, ableism

Saying “only” the elderly, ill or disabled will die of COVID-19 devalues their lives.

By Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Today is March 13, 2020, and the sixth day of my self-isolation. I have no symptoms of coronavirus, but I’m a high-risk, disabled senior with heart disease and hypertension, acting to protect myself and others from it. Each day of isolation feels more and more surreal, like both a really bad B-movie and a terrifyingly good novel about the end of the world.

I last saw my daughter a week ago when she brought several months’ worth of groceries. Because she works in a high-risk job in social housing, I couldn’t hug her goodbye. I have no idea when, or if, I’ll see her again. I’ve cancelled my PSW, the personal service worker I depend on twice a week. I can’t risk exposing myself to someone who works in multiple seniors’ residences each day. In all conscience, I can’t add to her risk or be responsible for repeatedly bringing a high-risk person into my apartment building full of seniors.

In short, my self-isolation is total. For weeks, possibly months, I won’t have visitors and won’t be leaving my apartment. To save lives, to “flatten the curve” by preventing a surge that overwhelms our hospitals, we must all do all we can. Now, while we still have time to do so.

This is what I can do. So I’m doing it.

As a disability activist connected to my community, I’m also steeling myself to read about the illness and death of my friends. But I can’t shield myself from the virulent commentary on the news, Twitter and Facebook. In every moment of every day, I hear young, healthy, able-bodied people reassuring each other that, thank goodness, it’s “only” the “elderly” and the “ill and disabled” who will die.

This is said so often and so casually, with endless shrugs. As if seniors, chronically ill and disabled people are disposable. As if we can’t hear you. As if we aren’t your beloved parents and grandparents. As if we don’t matter and our deaths will be nothing but an inevitable and acceptable loss.

On CNN, an expert on senior care facilities coldly calls COVID-19 “almost a perfect killing machine.” A column in the Telegraph concludes that an economic silver lining will be the “culling” of seniors and the disabled. On Twitter, thousands think it’s funny to call a deadly pandemic “the Boomer Remover.”

This is the dirty underbelly of ageism and ableism.

This is the open eugenics the coronavirus reveals.

Anyone who ever repeated “OK, Boomer” as if it were harmless and funny, everyone who ignored the banning of disabled people from inaccessible buildings, have all added drops to this growing tidal wave that threatens to wash away my human rights. The wave crests here: with people nodding at the notion that when medical services are overwhelmed, of course doctors must value younger, healthier lives over older, disabled lives. When the choice must be made, seniors and disabled people are, as the Nazis put it, “life unworthy of life.”

How do we face this pandemic while upholding the values of social justice?

I think we’re all going to learn about that as the days unfold, but I have some thoughts. For now, stay home. Go nowhere that isn’t absolutely necessary. Not just to protect yourselves, but to protect others. Check in with your senior and disabled friends and neighbours. By phone, text or email; don’t come to their door. And whenever someone suggests that it’s “only” little old ladies who will die, speak up. Tell everyone about a little old lady that you love and value and want to live.

This is what we can all do. So let’s do it together.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a disabled senior writer, accessibility consultant, retired high school drama teacher and union activist. Her new book is called “Falling for Myself.”

This article is republished with permission from broadview.org.

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