19 months into the global pandemic and public health crisis, I have found the many conversations I’ve overheard about COVID upsettingly ableist. One morning during the recent NSW lockdown, at our local coffee shop, my partner overheard the owner conversing with a customer who was maskless and ranting; “I’d rather see a few people die than the economy takes a hit.” The owner agreed, “there’s no need to shut down the economy, making businesses like mine suffer because it only kills the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.”
As someone who falls into the high-risk category, being a person who is immunocompromised and living with numerous life-long autoimmune conditions, I have taken this threat to my health incredibly seriously. Conversations like these are deeply personal and offensive to me. Needless to say, my partner and I no longer support this business. But these conversations are all too common and reflect the ableist rhetoric delivered to the public by our political leaders, medical and public health professionals.
These ableist ideas are spreading almost as quickly as the Delta variant itself and for the immunocompromised and disabled community, they feel just as life-threatening. For those of us in the high-risk category, we are self-isolating not only from the virus itself but out of fear of these dangerous social ideas gaining traction in the broader community. While the anti-lockdown and anti-vax protests reflect the extreme corners of ableist thinking, there are many more insidious examples of harmful ideologies.
For example, numerous recent news articles and statements made during press conferences speak to the small percentage of people who are dying from COVID, despite being vaccinated. As recently explained by Professor Tony Cunningham, director of the Centre for Virus Research at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, “This is in essence, that very small percentage of people who are not protected by the vaccine…the vaccinated patients most at risk of dying were immunocompromised or in the oldest age groups.” While this is intended to be a comforting statistic for the general public, for those of us who fall within the high-risk category it speaks to the dismissive and dehumanising language and conversations around COVID and our lives.
I am thankful to be one of the lucky ones who has managed to get fully vaccinated, and my loved ones have all been eager and willing to get vaccinated. But I am painfully aware that many of us within the disability community and high-risk category have been unable to get vaccinated, or are exposed to close friends, family or even support workers refusing to get vaccinated.
On the way back from getting my second vaccine dose, I got into an Uber and had a conversation with the driver, who was adamantly against getting vaccinated as he believed his “immune system would be able to fight it off.” During the conversation, I was aware that as a woman in a car with a man I did not know, I felt unsafe to express my real views on the matter. But these all-too-common ideas around ‘how the immune system can fight off COVID’are ableist and privileged to their core. I was also conscious that as much as I do not like it, people do have the right to choose not to get vaccinated. This realisation has had very real consequences in my personal life, especially in my social life and who I choose to be around post-lockdown.
December 1st looms as the date when NSW will open up and all citizens will experience the same freedoms, regardless of their vaccination status. But I am part of a small minority who will continue to live their lives like there is a potentially fatal threat to their health, long after the lockdown ends. The realisation that Australia will most likely not be COVID-free for the foreseeable future is a painful one for me, as many of our disabled and immunocompromised community will be forced into self-isolation indefinitely, sheltering from the frighteningly irresponsible public discourse that seems to be en route to having us all, vaccinated or not, going about our daily business as if Delta did not ever exist.
One can only hope that the strong voices of our community are heard and that our advocacy efforts are responded to in a way that not only protects us and the broader community from COVID transmission, but also acknowledges that looking after the most vulnerable in our community is an indicator of a healthy, strong, and inclusive society. For example, the broader disability community has demonstrated amazing advocacy in response to concerns around Auslan interpreters disappearing from the NSW COVID press conferences, drawing attention to how this has perpetuated accessibility barriers for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing community. This highlights the issue of ongoing ableist ideas that wrongfully create barriers for those of us in the disability community and speaks to issues of a lack of diversity and allyship in the current NSW government leadership.
Our community and government must acknowledge that those of us in the high-risk category are a part of the general public, who all want to get back to relative normality in a post-lockdown society, but that newfound freedom cannot come at the expense of anyone’s health or wellbeing. The strong voices of our community and leaders advocating for open conversations about ableist thinking, both during the pandemic and beyond, is an important step towards developing a more inclusive society that accounts for the diversity of human beings.
Lisa Mabin is a disability & inclusion advocate who is passionate about bringing about social change and social justice to the lives of people who live with disabilities, both visible and hidden. Lisa is a part of the disability community and is eager to make connections with other strong and inspiring people living with disabilities and advocating for our community.
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