Disabled Deaths Are Not Your “Encouraging News”: Resisting The Cruel Eugenics of Comorbidity Rhetoric
“Comorbidities” is a weaselly, cruel, violent word.
This word, this concept, of comorbidities, keeps surfacing in even my most mundane conversations with colleagues, friends, and family. Conversations that are mostly happening on the phone, Zoom, or through messaging because I need to be safe. Because I’m one of these immunocompromised people in the “four or more” comorbidities camp we keep hearing about–with a bit of emphasis on the more part, to be honest. These days–with so many people repeating the “only people with comorbidities” talking point–I feel like a heap of comorbidities in a trench coat, pretending to be a person.
Sure CDC, babe, but at this point I am just a heap of comorbities in a trech coat.
And I really need you to understand that I still have a whole life worth living. Comorbities and all 😘
— Ada Hubrig (@AdamHubrig) January 8, 2022
So in a Zoom meeting with colleagues, in messages with friends, or on the phone with a family member I have loved my whole life, it stings every time they repeat this messaging: but only people with comorbidities are dying.
I need to pause for a moment to point out that the claim that it’s only people with comorbidities that are dying is simply untrue. When Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said several weeks ago in an interview with ABC’s Good Morning America that 75% of those who are dying of COVID19 have four or more comorbidities, Dr. Walensky was speaking specifically about vaccinated individuals. Unvaccinated people remain much more likely to be hospitalized or die from the coronavirus, and that’s a vital, necessary public health message. It’s also necessary to remember that other people–even vaccinated people–are dying or developing disabilities often related to long-covid. This virus has claimed many lives–and disabled many more–among of those previously deemed “healthy” by the medical industrial complex, without the dark stain of a “preexisting condition” or “comorbidities” on their medical charts.
But as a disabled, immunocompromised person, I’m haunted by how Dr. Walensky added, after explaining that over 75% of the deaths of vaccinated people from Covid have been people with four or more comorbidities, that this is “encouraging news.” This messaging–meant to encourage a return to normal and apparently meant to comfort nondisabled people–is the real sting of this constant refrain of “people with comorbidities” rhetoric. I have been told, almost daily since the earliest stages of this pandemic, that it’s only people like me that are dying, that people like me are somehow a completely acceptable sacrifice for “the economy” and a “return to normal.” What should be read as a profound failure of national policy to protect the most vulnerable among us is being repackaged as “encouraging news.”
As someone who is immunocompromised, it’s disappointing how quickly everyone went full on eugenics when it came to COVID.
— Aislene 🌙 (@aislenes) January 20, 2022
I’m troubled by how deeply this messaging has permeated our culture. In talks with nondisabled people about how I’m still being careful, isolating and using a mask when I absolutely have to leave my home, I am gaslight by nondisabled people, who robotically repeat to me this “it’s only people with comorbidities dying” talking point. When I remind them that when they talk about people with comorbidities that they are talking about people like me, the response is predictably the same: “I wasn’t talking about you.”
A lotttttt of healthy people telling sick folks how to feel about COVID. Take a step back.
— kayle hill ♿️ (@kaylejh) January 16, 2022
But the fact that they’re not talking about me–and about us as immunocompromised and disabled people–is the problem. “People with comorbidities” is deployed to make us faceless non-people, to erase us from the conversation even when we are–in the most literal sense–the people being talked about. The rhetorical function of that word, of “comorbidities” is to erase our identities, to talk about us without talking about us. With the rhetoric of “comorbidities,” we’re not your siblings or your grandparents or your neighbors or your friends anymore. We’re statistics.
The reality of the situation is my government doesn’t care if I or other disabled, marginalized people die as long as nondisabled people can eat inside at an Applebees. We’re disposable as long as most people can continue to offer their labor (coerced by capitalism) and consumption to make the richest people a bit richer. In the push for a return to normal–a normal which already disregarded disabled people, and especially multiply marginalized disabled people–the eugenic belief that lives like mine are less worthy continues to solidify as policy, as schools and businesses reopen, as my state government here in Texas continues to stand in the way of local mandates and protections.
A versatile concept, “comorbidities,” is rhetorically deployed like the other eugenic weapons of capitalism and white supremacy, making faceless abstractions of the very people most at risk from this widely unmitigated pandemic. But framing the deaths of those with comorbidities as “encouraging news” sidesteps conversations around other prevailing injustices, including how BIPOC communities are more likely to have comorbidities because of systemic inequalities, how this pandemic has disproportionately harmed indigenous communities, and how the medical industrial complex already maligns disabled people, BIPOC folks, fat people, and LGBTQA+ kin.
Yes! And those most impacted are going to be Black and Brown folks. So we need to center theory and action around race and disability. We cannot ignore the intersections of racism and ableism. https://t.co/A5955NR3Ur
— Septima P. Snark (@DrSubini) January 15, 2022
Disability justice–a framework and movement created and sustained by the work of disabled queers and activists of color–reminds us that these are not separate issues, but are deeply and intricately interconnected. Disability Justice highlights how the people being sacrificed for “the economy” (a convenient abstraction for the violence of capitalism) in this push for normalcy are the very people “the economy” has always disregarded at best and destroyed at worst. Forgive me if I don’t care about your stock portfolio while my disabled, LGBTQA+, and BIPOC loved ones are dying. I find this situation devastating, nothing “encouraging” about it.
"Omicron is mild" translates to "I don't care about disabled people"
— Michael A Osborne (@maosbot) January 13, 2022
Immunocompromised and disabled people have largely been left to fend for ourselves before and during this ongoing pandemic. And as long as the abstraction of “comorbidities” prevails, so will policies and practices that disregard disabled lives. This is why we need to leave the rhetoric of “people with comorbidities” behind and get to talking about us, because when this dehumanizing messaging prevails people like me die en masse. We need to move away from the soul crushing declaration that disabled deaths are encouraging and see them, instead, as a collective failure to protect the very people most susceptible to the virus.
I want you to think long and hard about how you talk about people with comorbidities dying of covid, because whether you realize it or not, you are talking about me and people like me in this community of disabled people that I’ve come to love.
Ada Hubrig (they/them; Twitter @AdamHubrig) is an autistic, nonbinary, multiply-disabled caretaker of cats. They live in Huntsville, Texas, where they work as an assistant professor and English Education coordinator for the English Department at Sam Houston State University. Their research and teaching explore disability, especially at the intersection of pedagogy, queer rhetorics, community literacy, and teacher preparation. Their research is featured in College, Composition, and Communication, and their words have also found homes in Brevity, the Disability Visibility Project, and Taco Bell Quarterly. Adam is currently co-editor of the AntiAbleist Composition blog space and an advisory board member of the Coalition for Community Writing.
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