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A Pandemic and its Scourge

I never wanted to have to write this post.

I thought that this pandemic would bring out the best of humanity, that it would bring unity and togetherness, that it would increase compassion and encourage kindness. And it did, at first. We clapped for the NHS and set in place a whole load of things to include and comfort and help others. The nation seemed poised to help.

But it grieves me to say that it revealed something else, too. Something that has become more evident over the past weeks: a scourge of ableism and ageism. We saw flashes of it from the start, when people talked about how this virus only killed the vulnerable, the elderly, those with underlying conditions, so it didn’t matter, presumably, because we don’t matter very much. But the good outweighed the bad, at the start. People wanted to protect the vulnerable and the shielding, and our lives seemed to matter – to most. Early in the pandemic, though, it was obvious to me that there were some that placed people in categories for the purpose of justifying their response: the young come first, followed by the healthy middle aged, and the aged and sick come last, ‘because they are going to die soon anyway.’

Of course, many on the millions-long shielding list are no nearer to death than many of the ‘healthy’ (I hope I have many years left.) But that didn’t stop this narrative developing and becoming somewhat endemic in some thinking around the issues. It was almost as if people could feel better about their own risk when they could shift it all onto the shoulders of the vulnerable. But while that is to some extent understandable, it grew and grew until it became both ableist and ageist. There are several ways I observed this was played out over the last months, including these:

Why are we shutting society down for a tiny percentage of people that are sick and elderly anyway? (ie, why are we giving up so much for those who don’t matter as much as us?)

This comes out especially in conversations about rights and freedom. Some believe the government is insidiously stripping them of their rights, in order to fulfil some sinister agenda (Bill Gates and microchips, anyone?) Conversations like this tend to end up reflecting on the fact that these rights and liberties are being stripped for a tiny minority. Some of the language I’ve seen here grieves me greatly – it’s not only that the aged and sick are vulnerable, but that they ‘no longer contribute to society anyway’ or ‘are already a drain on services and benefits.’ Some of this talk comes scarily close to eugenics.

Our children are paying to extend the lives of sick, disabled and elderly people with their own lives. Our youth are missing out on rites of passage and education is suffering. It’s time to crack on and prioritise the young.

It’s true that many children and young people are suffering. This time has been incredibly difficult for young families, with children struggling without their usual routines. The problem here is the polarisation; the pitting of young against old, the extremism of a position that doesn’t take into account individuals, but plays political points by using an emotional argument.

{OR}: It’s the fault of the young people coming back from holiday and going back to university. They have no respect for their elders.

– ie, the ageism goes both ways. Can we not dig for compassionate words in the midst of this, and admit to failure amongst all ages without generalising and condemning an entire age group? My young adults and their friends have been compliant and are somewhat weary with being made scapegoats for things they have not done. They also tell me that they are wary of the ‘your lives have been wrecked for the vulnerable people’ argument they hear too often. Most young people are filled with compassion and a sense of commitment to the society as well as to the individual, and yet are being tarred with one brush, much as the elderly and vulnerable are on the other side.

I want to hear more nuance and compassion and less generalisation and unkindness (whatever happened to #bekind?)

Masks and exemptions. Oh, this is a big one and one that disproportionately hits disabled people, because many people don’t seem to grasp the fact that some people have good reasons not to wear a mask. The issue is, of course, that there are political mask-refusers that disabled people are lumped in with by the general public, by shops that completely refuse to admit anyone at all without a mask, whatever their exemption status (we can download cards and lanyards, but there is no ‘official’ documentation to state medical exemptions.) I am afraid that this is isolating the vulnerable even further, as those who cannot wear masks (it might not even be for a physiological issue – think about those who have been abused, for example, those with PTSD – there are all kinds of reasons) are increasingly staying at home in order to avoid the inevitable confrontation and name-calling. We are excluding more and more because we allow no room for nuance in these matters.

Those old people and vulnerable people keep taking my food slots.

Well, yeah.

We should just shield everyone over 60 and with underlying conditions and let the rest of us get on with life.

I understand this kind of thinking, but in reality there are millions of people this would exclude. How long should we isolate ourselves? How many more mental health issues would this raise along the way, as well as physical health issues for those too afraid to get help? I can’t see how shutting away certain groups in society so ‘the healthy’ can ‘start living’ is conducive to any kind of economic or social recovery.

I do not, myself, take a particular position on whether lockdown needs to be more firmly imposed at this time. I, too, am worried about the effect on society, the economy, mental health, our youngsters (although I would contend that ‘letting it rip through’ may make these matters worse.) I merely wanted to bring to light some of the things I have heard and read, and start a conversation about how we must be more careful when we are talking about real people and real lives. I wrote this little poem early on in the pandemic, and it still stands today, so I’ll leave you with it, with a plea to be mindful of how sometimes throwaway chatter can be threatening to those who are at the sharp end of it, and to remember compassion in all the everyday, even when times are tough.

What do you think? Have you experienced any ageism or ableism through the past months?


So what am I worth
in this scourge of the earth
it seems I am cursed
as my body is worse
than the young and the fit
I’m a number, an it
I know I’d be missed
but I’m on The List
condemned in a letter
until the earth’s better
I’m measured as less
in infirmity’s mess

But my value’s in more
than my CFS score
worth beyond age
or words on a page
more than a look
at lines in a book
a flawed reflection
of holy perfection
a new creation
of glory’s narration
loved beyond measure
in deep sacred treasure.

(c) Liz Carter 2020

From Treasure in Dark Places: Stories and Poems of Hope in the Hurting, out October 17th. Watch this space!

A Pandemic and its Scourge. I am grieved at the ableism and ageism being revealed by #Covid19 and call for more compassion in our interactions with one another. #coronavirus #shielding Share on X

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