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  • Jaclyn Swiderski

On (Still) Being a Disabled/Chronically Ill Graduate Student in a Global Pandemic

At the beginning of 2022, my county lifted its mask mandate, despite the COVID-19 Risk Dial being in the red (where it has stayed for the last several weeks). During this time, my fiance and I had to go to our local Target. I was worried about the mandate being lifted, but we needed something immediately, and so we had to go in. We wore two surgical masks each and tried to move as quickly as possible. Other than this quick trip, we did not leave our apartment. A few days later, we took COVID tests to return for our Spring semester. I was sitting at our kitchen table when I heard a small “fuck!” coming from the bedroom - after two years of being as careful as possible, my fiance and I tested positive for COVID.

One year ago, I wrote a piece about being a disabled/chronically ill graduate student during this pandemic. Although a full year has passed since then, not much has changed. Vaccines have rolled out now in the United States for everyone over the age of 5, but anti-vaccine rhetoric, and the spread of other misinformation about COVID-19 has been rampant across the country. Just last month, over two hundred doctors and scientists signed an open letter to Spotify urging them to create a policy on the spread of misinformation in the wake of The Joe Rogan Experience continually broadcasting false information to its millions of listeners. Rogan’s podcast is of course not the only place that is getting things wrong about the pandemic - take one look at TikTok, Instagram, or Twitter, and you’ll see what I mean.

Everyone is hurt by COVID misinformation, but disabled and chronically ill people remain one of the most vulnerable groups in the country - a vulnerable group that is still being ignored. Last year, I wrote about the pervasive idea that “only old and sick people are dying from COVID.” Rather than this type of rhetoric decreasing, it has actually ramped up even more, especially since the Omicron variant appeared. In fact, even the CDC director Rochelle Walensky is promoting this idea; on Good Morning America in January she said: “The overwhelming number of deaths, over 75 per cent, 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.” The implications of this statement are twofold. First, Walensky referring to the increased death rate of disabled people as “encouraging,” shows that we as a country do not care when disabled people die. Her message implies that the measures that the CDC and other government bodies have put in place are designed to help able bodied people only, because disabled people are a necessary sacrifice. This idea becomes even more clear in the CDC’s recent move to only five days of quarantine after testing positive for COVID. Second, Walensky calling these disabled and chronically ill people who have passed away “unwell to begin with” reveals a similarly pervasive, ableist belief that disabled/chronically ill people are better off dead. It seems to imply that COVID has put these disabled/chronically ill people out of their misery - because who could imagine a happy life as a disabled/chronically ill person?

I, for one, can imagine this type of life because I am living it, even though there are countless forces trying to keep me from doing so. I returned to teaching in person for the Fall semester of 2021, even though I did not want to. I was doubly vaccinated at that point, but it still felt too risky. I was exposed to COVID in the first week of the semester, when three of my students tested positive on the same day after being in class. Luckily, after that first very close call, all of my other students who tested positive for COVID caught it before coming to class. This was thanks to the testing protocol at our university - students needed proof of a recent negative test to even get into the building. As the pandemic continues on, however, schools across the country are lessening or even dropping testing requirements. Pandemic fatigue is real - it’s been a very long two years for all of us. Time will continue to move this slowly, however, if we do not start implementing more COVID protocols on campuses and elsewhere. The message that many universities are pushing out is that students want to be on campus, they want to be in person despite the raging COVID numbers in our communities. My emails from my disabled/chronically ill students say otherwise - they are scared, they feel unsafe, they are trying to sign up for all online classes but finding there are not enough available to do so.

I am lucky to be far enough along in my program that I am no longer in course work, but my friends, colleagues, and thousands of disabled students across the country (many of whom do not reveal their disability status to either fellow students or their instructors) are still being forced into in-person classrooms. In some of these classrooms masks are not mandated. In even more classrooms, vaccines are not mandated. COVID is not something that we all inevitably are going to get, like the common cold. If there were a mask mandate in place when I went to Target, I most likely would not have contracted COVID. I was lucky to have a mild case, and although hit harder than my fiance, I was still better after two weeks. Not all other disabled/chronically ill people are as lucky. In fact, we should not have to “be lucky” at all. In a world where the economy is treated as more important than disabled lives, we need to work together within our specific communities to keep each other safe. Disabled/chronically ill people are just as deserving of life and empathy as any other person. Wear a mask. Get vaccinated and boosted if you can. These simple, safe actions are not just for you - they keep your entire community, including the most vulnerable people, safe. Disabled and chronically ill people, even when "unwell" are living happy lives that are worth protecting.

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