“Herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” That’s what the U.K. government’s most influential—and most controversial—advisor, Dominic Cummings, saw as the best strategy to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak in February, according to an account published by the Sunday Times. Downing Street has since issued an unusual on-the-record denunciation of this claim and denied that herd immunity—a strategy first mentioned by Sir Patrick Vallance, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer—was ever really in the cards.
But Cummings’s reported attitude hasn’t been an unusual one. Throughout the crisis, global attitudes have been shaped by one clear and horrifying principle: Some lives matter more than others. That thinking, whether it applied to pensioners, fat people, asthmatics, or many others with the range of preexisting conditions that make individuals more vulnerable to COVID-19, runs deep. It’s a form of what disability activists call ableism—the idea that non-disabled lives are simply more important. In its extreme form, it’s the murderous politics of the Nazis, who deemed people with disabilities “life unworthy of life.” During the pandemic, similar attitudes have been less intentional but sometimes equally deadly.
The idea that letting older and vulnerable people die was part of the specific government planning in the United Kingdom is shocking. But it effectively pervades the American response too—at least as led by President Donald Trump and especially as the United States rushes toward reopening even as cases continue to grow in a number of new states. The supposed benefits of reopening are judged against lives deemed less worthy.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested in March that he believed “lots of grandparents” would rather die than let COVID-19 harm the U.S. economy, again working on the erroneous assumption that the virus only affects older individuals and pushing the narrative that these people are willing sacrifices.
Ableism has been part of the core of Trumpism since the start. Trump’s own fear of physical weakness—evidenced in his recent defensiveness over the simple act of walking slowly down a plank—and disdain for people with disabilities have long been evident. (To be sure, some of the mocking of Trump also ends up repeating the same prejudices.) He infamously mocked a reporter’s disability during his original election campaign and has cut services to people with disabilities while in government. Right-wing leaders globally have echoed the language of blame toward people with preexisting health conditions like heart disease and diabetes, such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Even as the deaths have piled up in the United States, Republicans and coronavirus deniers have gone searching for excuses for them—usually focusing on existing vulnerabilities. The former New York Times reporter and author Alex Berenson has devoted much of his efforts on Twitter to denouncing the science around COVID-19 as false and pinpointing age and preexisting conditions as the sole reasons that someone might be at risk of the disease.
In one tweet, he mentioned that someone he knew had died but of a heart attack, branding him falsely as “too young to die of #Covid.” Berenson also delights in mocking people who wear face coverings to protect from the virus and in contesting death statistics. He wrote: “The best guess is that 95-97% of them [those who have died] would have died anyway by year-end if #Sarscov2 had never existed.” To Berenson and those who share his politics, the vulnerable are infinitely expendable.
Ableism wraps into other prejudices. On May 17, Trump’s health secretary, Alex Azar, told CNN that America “unfortunately” has a “very diverse” population and Black Americans and minorities “in particular” have “significant underlying disease.” Azar was essentially blaming people of color for their own deaths because he deems them to be unhealthy.
In both the U.K. and the United States, Black and ethnic minority people are at much higher risk of dying of the coronavirus in comparison with white individuals. According to the British Office for National Statistics, Black people are 1.9 times as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people, Bangladeshi and Pakistani individuals 1.8 times as likely, and Indian people 1.5 times as likely.
The reasons for this are numerous and include factors such as living conditions, occupation, and health issues. The Institute for Fiscal Studies now concludes that those from Black African backgrounds in England and Wales are now dying at more than three times the rate of white Britons. In the U.K., Black people are more likely to be overweight, while Asian and Black populations are at greater risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. All of these conditions are linked to higher rates of death from the coronavirus.
These catastrophic health consequences are deeply linked to prejudice. Obesity, and subsequently Type 2 diabetes, is particularly prevalent in disadvantaged groups, in both North America and Britain, and linked to poverty, unemployment, and lack of education. These factors are inherently connected to systemic racism and discrimination against people of color.
Disability activists worry that the pandemic is entrenching old attitudes toward whose survival matters and who gets to participate in outside life. The U.K.-based disability blogger Carrie-Ann Lightley told Foreign Policy: “By using the term ‘vulnerable’ as a blanket descriptor for disabled people, those with medical conditions, and older people, I fear that we are seeing a resurgence in ableist attitudes. Anyone can be vulnerable—depending on the context and circumstances—and by using this label to encourage millions of people to shield in their homes without any clear and safe plan to rejoin society, we now face more barriers to equality than ever before.”
Older people and those with preexisting conditions are the sacrificial lambs. Trump is desperate for the economy to recover—at the expense of anyone who might be vulnerable. Here and in Britain’s discredited herd immunity whisperings, there is the resurgence of an old idea: that we should allow the weak to perish for the economic and social gain of everyone else.
Britain’s plan to put COVID-19 patients into care homes, where older and vulnerable people are residents, smacks of this same social cleansing—as did the rampant neglect in the first place. On March 12, official advice stated that: “It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.” People in care homes were left to suffer and die, with no block on visits, face coverings not worn, and no guidance on isolating sick residents. More than 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.K. have now been in care homes.
Even as lockdown begins to ease, particularly in the U.K., disabled and vulnerable people will effectively be excluded from reaping the benefits of this even as the risk to their lives is increased. The disability rights activist Charli Clement told Foreign Policy: “I think that as a young disabled person, it’s awful to hear people talk about lives not as individuals but as just someone who had a preexisting condition—it causes an implication that their life wasn’t one of worth and almost says, ‘They would have died anyway.’ Businesses are being encouraged to reopen with social distancing measures in place, but we’re not seeing any concession to accessibility in these measures because it is expected that disabled people will simply stay at home.”
Every single death from the coronavirus is tragic and unnecessary. But governments in both Britain and the United States seem to place more importance on economic recovery than they do on human life, due to the framing of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 as weak, frail, and ultimately unimportant.
As Clement said, “It has felt like a punch in the stomach, as I know the same would be said if I died from COVID-19. We shouldn’t be cast aside; we shouldn’t be expendable in this situation. Many of these deaths have been preventable regardless of preexisting conditions.”