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Quick Escape

We are not disposable – disability and the health system during COVID-19

Protective medical mask on yellow background surrounded with colourful pills and a thermometer.

I have heard these sentiments repeated again and again by politicians, medical professionals and those in power. I have heard these sentiments repeated by friends. I have heard them repeated by colleagues. I have heard them repeated by the people I know and love. Do they not know that as an immuno-compromised person, they are talking about me and my community?

As COVID-19 has drastically changed the way we live and relate to one another, disabled people like me have been living in fear, not just of the virus, but of community attitudes to our lives and existence. The pandemic has brought to the forefront deeply ableist ideas held by our society that see disabled lives as disposable. Our lives are not worth living, and are not worthy of the same care and protection. Our deaths do not carry with them the same grief and sorrow that abled deaths do. We are casualties that must be accepted for the greater good of our economy.

This discourse has dangerously manifested in our hospitals, shaping COVID-19 triaging policies and the way medical professionals treat disabled people – with or without the virus. In the U.S., we have seen universal do not resuscitate orders put in place in some jurisdictions for disabled COVID patients, condemning disabled people to death. In Australia, I have seen similar disregard for disabled peoples’ lives.

Providing draft feedback on different health systems’ COVID-19 ethical planning frameworks, I have been continually shocked and angered by triaging guidelines that override shared decision-making processes, fail to acknowledge disproportionate rates of disability amongst already oppressed communities – such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, other Black and Brown people, poor people, queer people, incarcerated people – and advocate for care rationing based on disability.

For many disabled people, hospitals are already traumatic places where we are spoken over, invalidated and dehumanised. Frequently they are places that deprive us of care, brutalise our bodies and result in our death. How do we begin to confront the even more explicit violence in our healthcare system COVID has triggered? When I think about the not-so-distant future, and try to imagine how our disability community is coping, I am filled with anguish thinking of the scars these triaging narratives will leave. I think of the trauma being resurfaced for hundreds of thousands of disabled people who have already suffered mistreatment at the hands of healthcare systems, and I think of those disabled people who would’ve survived COVID, had things been different. I vow to remember them and keep working towards a world grounded in disability justice, where no one is disposable and we can receive the care that we need.

Vanamali (Mali) Hermans is a disabled organiser, writer and community worker living on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. Mali is a Wiradjuri, Irish and Flemish woman, deeply invested in disability justice work, committed to challenging ableism and its intersections with colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy and class.

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