Feds declare health emergency over, but COVID-19 still ravages Disability community

March 5, 2023

The Biden administration announced Jan. 30 its intent to end the national emergency and public health emergency declarations related to the COVID-19 pandemic on May 11, 2023. 

In March 2020, an article in Workers World newspaper by a Disability Justice and Rights Caucus member exposed the particularly disparate and increasing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic faced by individuals with disabilities. (workers.org/2020/03/47187/) Clearly, there was a risk for serious medical complications and death for anyone already physically or mentally compromised. 

Prior to the vaccine’s being readily available, there was a collective vulnerability, a reminder that anyone could become disabled. As the WW article pointed out, in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, there was much discussion of the shortage of lifesaving medical supplies, like ventilators, and the consequent exclusion from access to such resources of people with disabilities and other oppressions.

This exclusion evoked traumatic historical memories of previous such rationing, including the use of eugenics as a state-sponsored weapon against people with disabilities and other oppressions. Both this longer history and the more recent experience with COVID-19 raise the danger that people with disabilities and other oppressions will again face greater risks.

Eugenics includes the practice of ending reproduction of people having so-called “genetic defects” or “inheritable undesirable traits” — based on the racist, classist, ableist idea that it is possible and desirable to distinguish between so-called “superior” and so-called “inferior” members of society. 

In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell upheld the sterilization of a Virginia woman, Carrie Buck, because of her alleged disabilities.  This decision was cited by attorneys for Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials to justify the forced sterilization of people with emotional, psychological and mental disabilities.

Roughly one-third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths were at facilities that house seniors with disabilities and people with disabilities aged 31-64, as reported by the National Council of Disabilities at the end of 2021. 

The NCD report states, “due to years of underinvestment in home- and community-based services, 850,000 people with disabilities nationwide are waiting for services to transition out of congregate-care settings, where disproportionate numbers of people have died during the pandemic.”

Seven areas of extra risks

The report identifies seven areas where disabled people continue to be impacted and underserved, exacerbated by the pandemic. These include: 

  1. Proper access to health care services: Due to the strain put on the health care systems, crucial therapy, medication and other services are delayed or canceled. 
  2. Limited direct-care workforce: Home health aide and visiting nurse shortages have, for a variety of reasons, forced many disabled people to rely on family members or to do without help for assistance with activities of daily living and a resultant loss of their independent living standard. 
  3. Inadequate congregate care facilities: The pandemic revealed the sub-par conditions of for-profit facilities. 
  4. Suspension of education for disabled children: repeated attempts by federal and state governments to cite the pandemic as an excuse to withdraw services that are a mandated right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Disabled students have suffered educational and behavioral setbacks as a result. 
  5. Lack of employment: The lack of any federal requirement to protect people from being fired because of the necessity for quarantine to reduce risk of illness is significant for disabled workers. 
  6. Poor communication: Facial masking makes it difficult for the hearing-impaired and visually impaired people to understand and limits socialization. 
  7. Inadequate mental health services and suicide prevention: Neurodivergent individuals have unique needs exacerbated by the pandemic that can require crisis intervention by trained mental health professionals. Lack of intervention also increases the risk of physical violence against disabled people by caregivers. (NCD.gov report, Oct. 29, 2021)

Walensky had to apologize 

In January 2022, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky apologized to disability advocates, after calling it “encouraging” that most vaccinated individuals who have died from COVID-19 “were unwell to begin with,” while saying the CDC needs to do more. Walensky drew ire from many with disabilities after an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” where she discussed a new study looking at the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. 

“The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75%, occurred in people who had at least four comorbidities, so really these are people who were unwell to begin with, and yes, really encouraging news in the context of omicron,” Walensky said during the appearance. “We’re really encouraged by these results.” (disabilityscoop.com/, Jan. 18, 2022) 

While the threat of medical care rationing may have diminished with the reduction in the number of COVID-19 cases, the Disability community is still disproportionately negatively impacted by the pandemic, in ways that expose a society that values profit over human life.

The announcement declaring the pandemic over means the ruling class will be turning its back on the Disability community and pulling the plug figuratively on addressing the hardships. 

Like turning off a switch, the consequent denial of affordable access to vaccines and testing may become a death sentence for all of the oppressed.

This is why the Disability Justice and Rights Caucus (DJRC) proudly continues to propagate our anthem: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs,” a slogan coined by Karl Marx nearly 150 years ago to describe communism, which is the ultimate goal of socialist revolution. 

Communism is the only economic and political system designed for the needs of the multitudes and not the profits of the few. Both disabled and able-bodied people will thrive when every tool of science, technology and medicine is used to heal and not to abuse. 

The next public zoom meeting of the second Sunday DJRC Dialogue will be Sunday, March 12, 2023, at 7:00 p.m. EDT. Contact [email protected] for more information.


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