The Inherent Ableism of Calls for Normalcy

Contributing writer Charlie Niedert ’23 defends the administration’s seemingly harsh Covid policies, demanding students consider the ways their actions affect those most at risk: the immuno-compromised.

Covid-19 has killed nearly five million people. Yet, from the very start of the pandemic, every measure put in place to slow the spread of the virus has been met with criticism. People have claimed that the measures infringe on personal liberty and create an environment of fear. They have promoted the sentiment that, since only certain kinds of people are at heightened risk of Covid, it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the entire population to mitigate the virus. These same complaints have been levied again and again. And lo and behold, it’s happening once more.

As a disabled person, I can hardly say that I’m surprised by this. There is a long history of the dehumanization and devaluation of disabled people. These sentiments only grew during the pandemic, from comments about the virus weeding out the weak to expectations that the sick simply stay home to protect themselves. Throughout the pandemic, people have erased our voices and disregarded the effects that the virus has on our lives as chronically ill people. Instead, they prioritize a long-lost feeling of “normalcy.”

On campus, we see a similar rush to return to “normalcy,” even when the restrictions in place still allow for education and social interaction in person. While able-bodied students debate whether restrictions give them a “normal” educational experience or not, those who are at high risk, or have other extenuating circumstances, face being shut out of that educational experience altogether.

When the pandemic first hit, there was a great mobilization of resources to adapt to the new situation. Suddenly, accommodations, such as remote learning and further reduced course loads, that had once been deemed impossible were made available to the entire student body. Even so, from the perspective of a disabled person, the words of unity and support that accompanied the transition to these accommodations rang hollow. I knew that the moment the college deemed it reasonable for able-bodied students to return, the rest of us would be left behind. The tools that were introduced over that period were temporary — only worth the effort while it wasn’t an accommodation for a disability or illness. The college has always made it very clear to its disabled students that it was not made with us in mind and that changing that is not a priority.

Amherst is not alone in this. The general attitude towards Covid has followed a similar pattern. As soon as those at low risk for the disease felt comfortable, or simply got tired of restricting themselves, all of the regulations started to disappear. Suddenly, people were expected to return to their workplaces, in-person activities and events resumed, mask mandates were lifted and people started acting as if everything was back to normal.

The problem is, things aren’t back to normal. While the vaccine is incredibly important and effective, it’s not perfect. Though less common, even vaccinated people can still get sick and spread the disease. Along with this comes the risk of vaccine-resistant strains, which will only increase the more we allow the virus to spread. It is true that the vaccine brought down the number of cases initially, but they have once again been rising. In the past month, cases reached the rate seen back in January of this year. This rise in cases, primarily among unvaccinated people, creates an environment for the virus to continue to spread, evolve and potentially cause breakthrough cases. The unfortunate reality is that Covid is still here; people are still getting sick and dying. Ignoring that for the sake of feeling “normal” will only increase the length of time that we will have to deal with this and further strain our medical system.

Yet, there are still many people who claim that those who are young and healthy should bare no responsibility to protect people from the virus. If it doesn’t directly affect them, why should they have to compromise their experiences?

Unfortunately, there is only so much that high-risk people can do to protect themselves. Maintaining quarantine and wearing masks is helpful, but wearing masks is most effective when used by not only the person trying to protect themselves, but also the people around them. Additionally, those same people who are high-risk are more likely to need medical care for other reasons, which they won’t be able to access if the medical system is overwhelmed with Covid patients. This is not to mention the financial and psychological burden that they face from taking more extreme measures without community support. It’s simply unreasonable to expect high-risk people to shield themselves from the virus on their own.

I understand why people want to forget about the pandemic. It is an incredibly stressful event that has put a strain on not only the medical system and economy, but also our mental health. However, the effects of the pandemic are felt most directly by chronically ill people, who are also disproportionately low income and people of color, and face an increased risk of mental health issues including suicide. These circumstances only make it more difficult to maintain the necessary level of safety, especially as federal aid also ignores the continued financial burden of the virus. We need to be taking into account how changes in regulations will affect those most at risk. Chronically ill people may face the choice between exposure to the virus in order to make a living and homelessness.

We cannot forget about the virus and ignore the impact on chronically ill people. Not everyone can leave the pandemic behind, and we shouldn’t abandon disabled people in a race to normalcy.