The following post is part of our series on perspectives from disabled and chronically ill people regarding COVID-19. This post is not intended as medical advice.
COVID-19 and the emergency responses from governments around the world are evidence we do not live in a society that works for everyone. While those of us at higher risk would sincerely appreciate everyone doing everything they can to stop the spread of this virus, merely hiding out until things go back to normal will not give us a world where the voices of disabled and chronically ill humans are not an afterthought. Hand washing, social distancing and the relief efforts that governments and foundations are temporarily piecing together are all necessary, but no amount of precautions are going to fix the holes in our social safety nets that COVID-19 has made so obvious.
It is not enough to simply react to emergencies while repeating the ableist and ageist “reassurances” that “only” those with underlying health conditions and those over 60 are at risk. Even if you happen to be a young, healthy person in a body free of underlying conditions, pandemics are no time to be selfish. What makes an outbreak like this so dangerous is not just how easily it spreads, but how many people are vulnerable. It’s not simply those over 60 or with underlying health conditions; it’s those who can’t follow the calls to “stay home” because they either can’t work from home or they don’t have a home to stay in. It’s those who are uninsured or underinsured and haven’t been able to afford an annual checkup in years. It’s those who don’t have extra money in case of an emergency. The longer we leave open the holes in our social safety nets, the more we are increasing our odds that pandemics like these may be our new normal.
Health insurance in America is largely tied to employment and even then, many cannot afford the employee contributions real coverage actually costs. When only some people can afford to stay well, everyone is at risk. Similarly, the ramifications of the United States being the only one out of 22 wealthy countries that does not guarantee workers some form of paid sick leave means that low-wage workers like food-service professionals who are unwell have to choose between starving and going to work ill. So even if you’re not a food-service worker and don’t know anyone who is, your risk is increased. Knowing this risk, people will avoid restaurants, which will cause many to permanently close their doors as they, like millions of people in this country, do not have enough reserves to keep operating if income slows.
The permanent closures of restaurants, small businesses, and other operations increase the risk of homelessness. And chances are you likely know someone on the brink of homelessness right now. Many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and cannot stock up for possible mandated quarantines .The housing crisis in this country preceded the COVID-19 crisis, but the two are likely to worsen each other. Those who live outside can’t regularly wash their hands, or easily find a pair of gloves to wear, or can’t care for their immune systems by getting sufficient sleep and eating nutrient-rich foods. So they are at higher risk, as are the social workers, service providers, crisis workers, community mental-health counselors, caregivers, shelter workers and others who work closely with them. Even if you aren’t homeless or don’t work with the homeless and don’t know anyone who is or does, you can’t remain unaffected.
We need to focus on mitigating these social issues. This is why relief efforts created during this time should not be merely temporary. There are many beautiful efforts to provide relief to get through this time. In Seattle, there’s the COVID-19 Response Fund, COVID19MutualAid, and the Seattle Artist’s Relief Fund (started by author Ijeoma Oluo), to name a few. But these need to become part of who we are.
It is time to push our leaders to step out of the cycle of emergency leading to temporary relief leading back to business as usual until another emergency, which will necessitate more temporary relief and so on. But while we push for healthcare, housing, and paid time off for all, let us also make the heartwarming efforts of mutual aid permanent, not just to relieve emergencies, but because our aims, which are more likely to insulate us in future pandemic potentialities, are social and economic justice for all.