During Covid, to be ‘vulnerable’ is to be told your life doesn’t matter

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hugh R Hastings/Getty Images

“Who do we not save?” In marker pen brainstormed on a whiteboard, these five words – from a government meeting in the early days of the pandemic and leaked last month by Dominic Cummings – say much about this government’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic and the real value it places on the so-called most vulnerable people.

Think back to last spring, when ministers declared that their priority was to keep disabled and older people safe. Matt Hancock promised to throw a ring of protection around care homes. Boris Johnson thanked disabled people for their “sacrifice” of shielding for months. In reality, these were the very people who would disproportionately go on to die. About 42,000 care home residents in England and Wales have died of Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), although the true number is thought to be higher. As of February 2021, 61,000 disabled people had lost their lives to the virus – accounting for almost 60% of total Covid-19 deaths in England.

It would be easy to assume these deaths were largely owing to pre-existing health conditions, but they were as much a matter of pre-existing inequalities. Analysis by the ONS shows disabled people’s deaths from Covid are linked to poverty and cramped housing, as well as unequal access to healthcare, a reality that has been even more deadly for black and Asian disabled people.

High-risk people who hoped ministers would protect them ended up becoming victims of inaction and indifference. A shielding programme in England so inept that nearly two million people were missed off it. Staff sent into care homes without adequate PPE. Shielding workers with no financial support forced into workplaces to pay their bills. This is what institutional neglect looks like: a perfect storm of systematic injustice and old-fashioned disregard.

“Vulnerable” has become a key word in the pandemic lexicon, but it is one that has often done more harm than good. It implies that the mass deaths of disabled and old people were inevitable, and conveniently exonerates the state from responsibility. It suggests that the decision to send untested residents back to care homes was not to blame for subsequent deaths, but rather it was the faulty bodies of the individuals in question.

The truth is, disabled and older people were not “vulnerable” to the virus simply because of their health or age: they were vulnerable because the government did not bother to keep them safe. What happened to our “most vulnerable” during the pandemic was not some terrible tragedy. It was the all too predictable consequence of a system that decided the lives of disabled and older people mattered less than those of the rest.

When deaths start to mount, it becomes remarkably easy to lose sight of the value of a life. In April last year, as hospitals buckled under rising cases, the British Medical Association set out guidance – later withdrawn – to ration treatment away from Covid patients with certain disabilities. By the second wave, people with learning disabilities who had fallen sick with the virus were having “do not resuscitate” orders imposed on them. These moments were shocking, but ultimately they barely registered as a scandal. It is remarkable how easily injustice can be accepted if it is being inflicted on the right set of people.

In the shadows of the second world war, the philosopher Hannah Arendt described how the most immoral acts are often perpetrated not by evil monsters, but by officials carrying out their jobs. Eight decades after the conflict, we find ourselves in a very different global crisis, but Arendt’s theory remains relevant. The worst horrors do not need to be calculated. Callousness does not come for us from a villain in a black hat. Sometimes it is just pen scribbled on a whiteboard.

Nothing will bring back the disabled people who have lost their lives to Covid-19, but the least they deserve is that we learn lessons from their deaths. The first is that these matters are bigger than just the pandemic. Coronavirus may have laid them bare, but it did not invent them.

During the past decade, the British state has adopted an increasingly brazen, utilitarian approach that views some citizens as useful and others as too costly. Years of framing disabled people as “scroungers”, and those out of work as “skivers”, has allowed politicians to put a price tag on decency. It has normalised causing harm to the very people who need help.

The same society that left tens of thousands of people to die in care homes has a benefits system that routinely makes disabled people destitute, and a social care system that leaves elderly people sitting in soiled sheets. One cannot be tackled without confronting the other.

If we are to have any chance of changing this, the second lesson will require reflecting on how such a society has developed in the first place. Institutions and the people within them hold power and responsibility, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Careless politicians have the chance to cause more harm only because we re-elect them. Hate-filled newspapers survive only because we buy them.

There is a dearth of empathy and respect for disabled and marginalised people. Addressing this surely relies on listening to those actually affected; it is not a coincidence that disabled people, who suffer unequal hardship, are underrepresented in the media and politics. It gives a hint at where we are that, in the current debate about care workers being unvaccinated, we’ve heard barely a word from the care users who would be put at risk.

The belief that disabled lives – or, for that matter, those of poor or black or older people – are disposable is a deep-seated and complex prejudice that will not be easily shifted. But the crux is surely simple enough: those who are different from ourselves deserve the same rights, dignities and protections as we have. As tens of thousands of “vulnerable” people lie in early graves, it is achingly clear how far we have departed from this ideal. They don’t need our pity – they need justice.

  • Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People (now in audiobook)

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