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A battle-cry for the “only”: Covid-19 messaging has changed the way I view the world.

Melissa Parker has written a personal, introspective article on how social media and Covid-19 messaging have changed the way disabled people are treated, in light of the CDC's recent comments.

Trigger Warning: ableism, Covid, death.

a black and white line drawing of a person holding a phone. A hazy shadow projects from the phone to their face.

(Photo by visuals on Unsplash)

[Image: a black and white line drawing of a person holding a phone. A hazy shadow projects from the phone to their face.]

by Melissa Parker.

It’s often said that social media isn’t the real world.

This belief, I think, is too simplistic. The line between what occurs online, and in-person is beginning to seep and bleed. When disabled people enter this sphere of otherness, we’re told not to take it to personally, because it’s not real, even as it couldn’t be more personal. We are told in both worlds that our lives have less value, matter less, and we’re dehumanised – both by the tangible and the intangible. COVID-19 has unearthed this ableism more fully, making it impossible to ignore. As we contemplate a return to ‘normality,’ irredeemable damage has been done. As Malcolm Gaskill noted about the power of social media, “the media may be new, but the punitive messages and appetites remain the same. Today’s tech simply provides new outlets for the worst behaviour.”

Those who want to return to normal at any cost make their presence felt more than anywhere on social media. It’s disconcerting and damaging to enter this world and be repeatedly told that your life is worthless, that it’s okay to discuss your hypothetical demise, that you are one of the “only” and, therefore, not worthy of consideration. The pandemic and those in power have changed the narrative. Once, there was an art, a skill, a shrewdness to ableism. Covid-19 has made it a blunt instrument to be wielded publicly.

The Director of the CDC, Rochelle Walensky, only added credence to those who see disabled people as collateral damage. And she did it on national television. By suggesting it’s “really encouraging” that the omicron variant predominantly harms disabled people as the 75% of vaccinated people who died of COVID-19 were already disabled.

Walensky has argued her comments were taken out of context and reiterated the importance of protecting disabled people. However, the damage has been done, and it’s not an isolated event. In the U.K., we face the same onslaught of messaging. From the pandemic’s start, news reports and statements from many other sources have stressed that those who died often had underlying health conditions. Then there are the opinion pieces in national newspapers with titles such as, ‘I’ve got a mild case of “omicron envy” - have you?’ The non-disabled seem to have entered a collective state of forgetfulness – whether by design or privilege.

However, we need to remember the individual human cost of a global event that has surpassed numbers that are easy to contextualize away. Disabled people have suffered and continue to suffer. In 2020, disabled people reported that the coronavirus pandemic had affected their well-being more frequently than non-disabled people. It worsened their mental health (41% for disabled people and 20% for non-disabled people). They were feeling lonelier (45% and 32%), they spent too much time alone (40% and 29%), and they felt like a burden on others (24% and 8%). Further, it’s estimated that 6 in 10 people who died of COVID-19 were disabled.

It’s harmful to have those in power suggest that “only” those with disabilities or chronic health conditions will die. It’s even more harmful to perpetuate this on social media. It normalises and disseminates this corrosive mixture of Covid-19 and ableism on an industrial scale. It feeds the small, incremental, daily interactions disabled people must contend with, whether in a deliberate, targeted D.M. or the corner shop.

It sits in our inboxes.

In the replies to our tweets.

Our social media feeds.

It’s in the political and medical discourse, in the non-disabled who write about contracting omicron so they can “get it over with,” so they can have a break from their spouses. It’s unrelenting and overwhelming; so many opinions, and counter opinions, facts and counter facts. In the minds of non-disabled people, it can feel as if we exist to be manipulated and moulded, to be played with and put away. Our lives and deaths are explored in the abstract.

Ableism, the force which allows non-disabled people to feel they have this control, is a constant presence in disabled people’s lives. We know what it is to see it, feel it and fight it. So, is it possible to live within a society that has so entirely excluded us, which has told us, on whatever platform, in whatever medium, that our lives aren’t worth even minor inconvenience? How do we navigate a world which has told us our worth so brutally? How do we recover if we’re one of the “only,”?

How do we rejoin the many?


Melissa Parker is a writer with bylines in the Independent, Stylist Magazine, Refinery29, The Unwritten and Cosmopolitan and more. You can follow Melissa here on Twitter - @Melissa29214544

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