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By the time this article is printed, New Zealand will be in lockdown just as we are in the United Kingdom.
It’s a bizarre, unsettling new lifestyle, and I still don’t know quite how I feel about the whole thing. I’m anxious for my friends and family members, especially those who are old and/or living with underlying health conditions. I’m worried for myself too — as a young, seemingly healthy person, it probably seems like I’m not at danger here — but I’m immunocompromised, and I can’t help wondering what new damage Covid-19 would wreak to my body. Being told that the coronavirus is "safe" for 98% of the population is hardly reassuring when one falls into the other category.
I can’t help but feel frustrated too. As the virus proliferates across the globe, people reassure themselves — both in public and in private — that the virus will only prove fatal for a few vulnerable groups, namely the elderly, the immunocompromised and those with pre-existing health conditions.
But all too often, these reassurances have been issued with an overt ageist and ableist overtone.
"It’s only serious for the old and disabled", we’re told on a daily basis, with the implication being that old and disabled lives are less valuable than their younger and non-disabled peers.
This ableism has practical and damaging ramifications. The more complacent people are about the virus harming older and disabled people, the less likely people are to care about helping contain the virus’ spread. Considerable public advice has been issued by governments about Covid-19 — we’ve learned how to wash our hands properly, and the appropriate distance one should keep between friends when socialising. But for those who fall into a high-risk group, there is comparatively little information.
Secondly, there has been a global realisation of sorts — many people can work remotely, classes can be conducted online, accommodations can be made. Workplaces are actively having to invest in technology that enables people to work from home. Universities are streaming and recording their classes, allowing assignments to be handed in online, and enabling students to collaborate on online platforms like never before.
It’s rather galling, when for years we’ve been told that it’s simply too difficult and too impractical to help students with disabilities or chronic illnesses learn remotely.
Thirdly, people with disabilities are inconvenienced now more than ever. It’s practically impossible to secure a supermarket delivery slot, leaving those who physically cannot travel to the supermarket or carry their food home empty-bellied. Public transport has all but vanished, although getting out of the house will be less of a concern now that we’re in lockdown. Those with compromised immune systems live in danger of contracting all numbers of diseases now that panic-stricken able-bodied people have stockpiled all the hand-sanitisers and antibacterial soap. The hoarding of face masks by healthy folk has caused a dangerous shortage for immunocompromised people as well as those on the frontline — the nurses, paramedics and doctors who need them most.
As Francis Ryan points out in her excellent article for The Guardian, disabled and older people who rely on social care can’t self-isolate if they rely on carers coming to their home to help them with their daily duties. Moreover, the pandemic has forced those who need care to make the difficult choice between safeguarding their own health, if not life, through isolation or continuing to see the carers who help them live.
After contracting the Epstein-Barr virus in my second year of university, and developing ME/CFS afterwards, I fought tooth and nail to receive accommodations from my university and workplaces. I learned from a previous employer that it was "impossible" for me to work from home, even though the office’s fluorescent lights gave me blinding headaches and I could not stay awake from 9 to 5 without at least five coffees and a copious amount of sugar.
My weakened immune system makes me susceptible to almost every ailment — the common cold can literally knock me over for a fortnight, but university classes and assignments wait for no man. Now, all three universities I have studied at are allowing their students to attend remote classes. I was told this option simply didn’t exist.
I can only hope that the widespread accommodations currently being made for the swathes of house-bound able-bodied people remain in place for those who can’t so easily return to the office or the lecture hall.
Allowing employees to work remotely, and students to learn online, fosters equality in the workplace and school-rooms by allowing people with chronic illnesses and disabilities to contribute. Covid-19 has revealed the best and worst in us all. It has also laid bare the rampant ableism and ageism in our society.
- Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.