SAN FRANCISCO — In early January, one of the country’s top public health officials went on national television and delivered what she called “really encouraging news” on covid-19: A recent study showed that more than three-fourths of fatalities from the omicron variant of the virus occurred among people with several other medical conditions.
“These are people who were unwell to begin with,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walensky’s remarks infuriated Americans with disabilities, who say the pandemic has highlighted how the medical establishment — and society at large — treats their lives as expendable. Among those leading the protest was San Franciscan Alice Wong, an activist who took to Twitter to denounce Walensky’s comments as “ableism.” Walensky later apologized.
Wong, 47, moves and breathes with the aid of a power wheelchair and a ventilator because of a genetic neuromuscular condition. Unable to walk from around age 7, she took refuge in science fiction and its stories of mutants and misunderstood minorities.
Her awakening as an activist happened in 1993, when she was in college in Indiana, where she grew up. Indiana’s Medicaid program had paid for attendants who enabled Wong to live independently for the first time, but state cuts forced her to switch schools and move back in with her parents. Wong relocated to the Bay Area for graduate school, choosing a state that would help her cover the cost of hiring personal care attendants. She has since advocated for better public health benefits for people who are poor, sick, or older or have disabilities.
The founder of the Disability Visibility Project, which collects oral histories of Americans with disabilities in conjunction with StoryCorps, Wong has spoken and written about how covid and its unparalleled disruption of lives and institutions have underscored challenges that disabled people have always had to live with. She has exhorted others with disabilities to dive into the political fray, rallying them through her podcast, Twitter accounts with tens of thousands of followers, and a nonpartisan online movement called #CriptheVote.
Wong is nocturnal — she typically starts working at her computer around 9 p.m. On a recent evening, she spoke with KHN via Zoom from her condo in the city’s Mission District, where she lives with her parents, immigrants from Hong Kong, and her pet snail, Augustus. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why do you often refer to people with disabilities as oracles?
Disabled people have always lived on the margins. And people on the margins really notice what’s going on, having to navigate through systems and institutions, not being understood. When the pandemic first hit, the public was up in arms about adjusting to life at home — the isolation, the lack of access. These are things that many disabled and chronically ill people had experienced. Disabled people had been trying forever to advocate for online learning, for accommodations in the workplace. The response was: “Oh, we don’t have the resources,” “It’s just not possible.” But with the majority inconvenienced, it happened. Suddenly people actually had to think about access, flexibility. That is ableism, where you don’t think disabled people exist, you don’t think sick people exist.
Q: Have you noticed that kind of thinking more since the pandemic began?
Well, yes, in the way our leaders talk about the risks, the mortality, about people with severe illnesses, as if they’re a write-off. I am so tired of having to assert myself. What kind of world is this where we have to defend our humanity? What is valued in our society? Clearly, someone who can walk and talk and has zero comorbidities. It is an ideology, just like white supremacy. All our systems are centered around it. And so many people are discovering that they’re not believed by their doctors, and this is something that a lot of disabled and sick people have long experienced. We want to believe in this mythology that everybody’s equal. My critique is not a personal attack against Dr. Walensky; it’s about these institutions that historically devalued and excluded people. We’re just trying to say, “Your messaging is incredibly harmful; your decisions are incredibly harmful.”
Q: Which decisions?
The overemphasis on vaccinations versus other mitigation methods. That is very harmful because people still don’t realize, yeah, there are people with chronic illnesses who are immunocompromised and have other chronic conditions who cannot get vaccinated. And this back and forth, it’s not strong or consistent about mask mandates. With omicron, there is this huge pressure to reopen schools, to reopen businesses. Why don’t we have free tests and free masks? You’re not reaching the poorest and the most vulnerable who need these things and can’t afford them.
Q: How has your life changed during the pandemic?
For the last two years, I have not been outside except to get my vaccinations.
Q: Because you’re so high-risk?
Yeah. I have delayed so many things for my own health. For example, physiotherapy. I don’t get lab tests. I’ve not been weighed in over two years, which is a big deal for me because I should be monitoring my weight. These are things I’ve put on hold. I don’t see myself going in to see my doctor any time this year. Everything’s been online — it’s in a holding pattern. How long can I take this? I really don’t know. Things might get better, or they might get worse. So many things disabled people have been saying have been dismissed, and that’s been very disheartening.
Q: What kinds of things?
For example, in California, it was almost this time last year when they removed the third tier for covid vaccine priority. I was really looking forward to getting vaccinated. I was thinking for sure that I was part of a high-risk group, that I’d be prioritized. And then the governor announced that he was eliminating the third tier that I was a part of in favor of an age-based system. For young people who are high-risk, they’re screwed. It just made me so angry. These kinds of decisions and values and messages are saying that certain people are disposable. They’re saying I’m disposable. No matter what I produce, what value I bring, it doesn’t matter, because on paper I have all these comorbidities and I take up resources. This is wrong, it’s not equity, and it’s not justice. It took a huge community-based effort last year to get the state to backtrack. We’re saying, “Hey we’re here, we exist, we matter just as much as anyone else.”
Q: Do you think there’s any way this pandemic has been positive for disabled people?
I hope so. There’s been a lot of mutual aid efforts, you know, people helping each other. People sharing information. People organizing online. Because we can’t wait for the state. These are our lives on the line. Things were a little more accessible in the last two years, and I say a little because a lot of universities and workplaces are going backward now. They’re doing away with a lot of the hybrid methods that really gave disabled people a chance to flourish.
Q: You mean they’re undoing things that helped level the playing field?
Exactly. People who are high-risk have to make very difficult choices now. That’s really unfortunate. I mean, what is the point of this if not to learn, to evolve? To create a new normal. I can’t really see that yet. But I still have some hope.
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.