The ableism and ageism being unleashed is its own sort of pestilence.

by Elliot Kukla, March 19th, 2020

Like many people all over the world, I am not leaving the house now. For me, though, staying home is nothing new. I am in bed as I write this, propped up by my usual heap of cushions, talking to other sick and disabled people all day on my laptop about how the hell we’re going to care for one another in the coming weeks with a gnawing feeling of dread in my belly.

The news doesn’t look good: There are more people sick; less relief is coming. The “reassuring” public service announcements are no better. Countless messages from my dentist, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and from my child’s playgroups tell me not to worry because it’s “only” chronically ill people and elders that are at risk of severe illness or death. More than one chronically ill friend has quipped: “Don’t they know sick and old people can read?”

The pestilence of ableism and ageism being unleashed is its own kind of pandemic. In Italy, they’re already deciding not to save the lives of chronically ill and disabled people, or elders with Covid-19. The rationale is twofold: We are less likely to survive, and caring for us may take more resources. This is not an unusual triage decision to make in wartime or pandemics; our lives are considered, quite literally, more disposable.

I am a chronically ill rabbi who offers spiritual care to those with illness, and elders coming to the end of life. Almost no one in my personal or professional world would “earn” care if the United States were to come to a scenario like Italy. Not my 102-year-old client with brilliant blue eyes and ferocious curiosity who survived Auschwitz; not my friend who is a wickedly smart writer, activist, and wheelchair user currently recovering from major surgery; nor me, with my immune system that doesn’t work well, or works too hard, attacking my own tissues.

In the United States, most of my disabled and sick friends believe we are racing to a similar situation as Italy. We have a perfect storm brewing of a large population without health insurance, many people without paid sick leave, and an already overburdened health care system. This virus is merciless. It travels through the young to attack the old; through the healthy to assault the chronically ill.

The way to save our lives is clear, according to public health experts: If you possibly can, stay home. Especially since we are surrounded by people who don’t have that option, including migrant workers; unhoused, incarcerated and institutionalized people; and health care workers. And yet young, healthy, affluent people are still taking advantage of cheap airplane tickets and using their “time off” to go to restaurants while they remain open. Taken together, the stark message to chronically sick, disabled people and elders is that we are “acceptable losses.”