Over the last few days I have found myself thinking a lot about COVID-19: Should I be concerned? Should I prepare? What is the risk to my family, particularly my medically fragile adult son?
To the best of my understanding the coronavirus is currently believed to pose little risk if you’re relatively young, or even middle-aged, and healthy. While that may change as we learn more about the virus, for most of us even though we lack immunity to the virus, the symptoms of coronavirus will likely be mild. The very “mildness” of the virus is part of the problem. Infected people with low-grade symptoms tend to carry on with their daily lives, meaning they infect others. Again, not a problem if you’re young and healthy. But eventually these infected young(er) and healthy people will infect people who are high-risk like my son. It’s just a matter of time. In fact, it’s starting to play out in some parts of the world already.
Ableism is rampant in conversations about the virus. Conversations about the 1% of people who are at high risk for complications happen as if those lives are accepted collateral damage. The Globe ran an interesting article today about the ethical questions the virus presents. How will hospitals respond if there is a sudden increase in demand on scarce resources, in particular ICU beds and ventilators.
My middle son spent most of December in the ICU and was intubated (meaning, “on a ventilator”) for almost two weeks. While we don’t know exactly what put him there, the common cold or influenza is the likely culprit. And, yes, he had a flu shot. My son lives with profound intellectual and physical disabilities. He has underlying medical complications which make him very high risk during flu and virus season. Coronavirus, if acquired, would likely pose a significant risk to his health.
But here’s the thing. With aggressive treatment he recovered from his December hospitalization and by early February had returned to most of his daily activities. He was back at his day program, running errands with family in the community, and was attending OHL hockey games.
The implicit suggestion in ethical discussions like these is that those most likely to respond to treatment will receive scarce medical resources. How will ableist assumptions impact these conversations? Will those with disabilities and underlying medical conditions continue to be viewed as collateral damage? The very idea that we are discussing whether scarce medical care might be offered to people like my son is ableist because it implies that their lives are somehow less valuable and worthy of intensive treatment.
I think my son could survive a bout of coronavirus. He kicked influenza like a boss in December – statistically a far more dangerous virus. What might kill him is a community that doesn’t see his life as worthy of scarce care.