Don’t Reassure People By Saying Coronavirus is More Likely to Harm the Chronically Ill & Elderly

Suzy Berkowitz

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Every year during flu season, I take precautionary measures not to get sick, from adding immune boosting supplements to my daily routine to clocking more hours of sleep than usual and drinking extra water and tea to keep myself hydrated. I was born with several heart defects, which makes me particularly susceptible to not only catching viruses, but being unable to shake them as easily as someone healthier. Even with precautionary measures in place, I catch at least two colds during flu season, each lasting twice as long as those of people without pre-existing conditions

I watch healthier people breeze through the winter months unscathed running on considerably less sleep and hydration, and it frustrates me to no end. The emergence of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 provides healthy people with a glimpse into the emotionally, physically and financially taxing state of concern and precaution perpetually taken by the elderly and chronically ill

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In an effort to curb hysteria surrounding catching coronavirus, officials and publications have released ableist and ageist statements of reassurance that those most at risk are the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions, groups that may seem small but in reality make up much of our nation’s population. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 50 to 129 million (19-50 percent) American carry a pre-existing health condition and according to The Population Reference Bureau, 52 million Americans (16 percent) are over the age of 65. 

As someone with a pre-existing condition, I am susceptible to catching coronavirus. As someone with a pre-existing condition, I live in a constant state of fear, concern and anxiety for my body. My chronic illness is invisible; I am young and able-bodied, but that doesn’t make my illness any less existent. For the past few weeks, I have watched coworkers’ and acquaintances’ faces adjust in real-time when I remind them of my pre-existing condition after they reassure me that only “old and sick people” are susceptible to catching coronavirus.

The elderly and those of us with pre-existing conditions are continuously made the “other.” We’re excluded, pitied and made to feel like burdens — and this exclusionary rhetoric only further reveals how disposable and discarded the most vulnerable are to those seeking a diversion from their own mortality. It is demoralizing and insensitive to hear this framing by healthy people and not be given the resources and care necessary to take precautionary measures against this global pandemic. 

Before searching for reassurance in others people’s reality, remember that these lives are just as valuable as your own. Protect them like your own. Ask an elderly or chronically ill person in your life what you can do for them in the face of coronavirus. Be considerate of their heightened needs, and listen to their concerns. Realize that the precautions you are just beginning to implement have been a part of their lives for years.

Let this be a lesson in empathy: For you, it’s an outbreak. For the elderly and chronically ill, it’s a day in the life.

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