How the Coronavirus Impacts People with Disabilities
By Seth Eislund
In December of 2019, COVID-19, a novel and extremely infectious strain of coronavirus, originated in and began spreading throughout China. Now, nearly five months later, the world is facing a catastrophic pandemic with a majority of cases in the United States. While COVID-19 poses a threat to all individuals, people with disabilities are at a higher risk of having the disease negatively impact their lives. People with disabilities are at a higher risk for two main reasons: many have debilitating chronic health conditions and face medical discrimination.
COVID-19 is a grave danger to those with disabilities because many have chronic health conditions that make them more likely to contract the virus. According to the CDC, people who are aged 65 years or older, as well as those living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, are at a higher risk of catching the coronavirus. A United Nations report confirms this data, which states that 46% of people who are 60 years old or older have disabilities, which makes them more vulnerable to infection. The elderly have weaker immune systems that are not as effective at combating COVID-19 as middle-aged or young individuals, and possessing a disability can worsen the virus’ effects. The CDC also states that people with chronic lung disease, asthma, and heart conditions, or those who are immunocompromised, obese, or have diabetes, face a higher risk of infection. These health conditions can make life extremely difficult for those who possess them, and therefore can be classified as disabilities. Thus, when confronted with coronavirus, these individuals’ preexisting health conditions weaken their bodies’ resistance to the virus.
While the health conditions of people with disabilities make them more vulnerable to the virus, medical plans play a sinister role in discriminating against those with disabilities. Several states, including Utah, Tennessee, and Alabama, have emergency medical contingency plans that withhold medical equipment from people with mental disabilities. Alabama’s contingency plan is one of the most explicit in terms of denying treatment to people with disabilities. It states, “Persons with severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury may be poor candidates for ventilator support.” These contingency plans are ethically bankrupt and morally revolting. They imply that people with cognitive disabilities are less human than abled people, and, therefore, should not deserve ventilator treatment if they become infected with COVID-19. Thankfully, disability rights organizations have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to challenge these plans. But, as of the time of this writing, they remain unchanged.
Although the state of people with disabilities during the coronavirus pandemic is dire, there are still ways to ensure their safety. The Center for American Progress provides several potential solutions to the issues that people with disabilities currently face. Such solutions include paid family and medical leave, support for direct-care services, the suspension of Medicaid work requirements, and more. If we follow these guidelines and promote the idea that the differently-abled are human beings that deserve appropriate medical care, people with disabilities will be able to more effectively persevere through the pandemic.