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Topics: Ethical Living, June 2020 | Opinion

Coronavirus comments expose underbelly of ageism, ableism

Saying "only" the elderly, ill or disabled will die of COVID-19 devalues their lives


Dorothy Palmer is currently writing a regular digital column for Broadview while in isolation during COVID-19.

Today is March 13, 2020, and the sixth day of my self-isolation. I have no symptoms of coronavirus, but I’m a high-risk, disabled senior with heart disease and hypertension, acting to protect myself and others from it. Each day of isolation feels more and more surreal, like both a really bad B-movie and a terrifyingly good novel about the end of the world. 

I last saw my daughter a week ago when she brought several months’ worth of groceries. Because she works in a high-risk job in social housing, I couldn’t hug her goodbye. I have no idea when, or if, I’ll see her again. I’ve cancelled my PSW, the personal service worker I depend on twice a week. I can’t risk exposing myself to someone who works in multiple seniors’ residences each day. In all conscience, I can’t add to her risk or be responsible for repeatedly bringing a high-risk person into my apartment building full of seniors. 

In short, my self-isolation is total. For weeks, possibly months, I won’t have visitors and won’t be leaving my apartment. To save lives, to “flatten the curve” by preventing a surge that overwhelms our hospitals, we must all do all we can. Now, while we still have time to do so. 

This is what I can do. So I’m doing it. 

More on Broadview: In this coronavirus outbreak, should we meet for church?

As a disability activist connected to my community, I’m also steeling myself to read about the illness and death of my friends. But I can’t shield myself from the virulent commentary on the news, Twitter and Facebook. In every moment of every day, I hear young, healthy, able-bodied people reassuring each other that, thank goodness, it’s “only” the “elderly” and the “ill and disabled” who will die. 

This is said so often and so casually, with endless shrugs. As if seniors, chronically ill and disabled people are disposable. As if we can’t hear you. As if we aren’t your beloved parents and grandparents. As if we don’t matter and our deaths will be nothing but an inevitable and acceptable loss. 

On CNN, an expert on senior care facilities coldly calls COVID-19 “almost a perfect killing machine.” A column in the Telegraph concludes that an economic silver lining will be the “culling” of seniors and the disabled. On Twitter, thousands think it’s funny to call a deadly pandemic “the Boomer Remover.” 

This is the dirty underbelly of ageism and ableism. 

This is the open eugenics the coronavirus reveals.

More on Broadview: There is no excuse for taking the life of a disabled person

Anyone who ever repeated “OK, Boomer” as if it were harmless and funny, everyone who ignored the banning of disabled people from inaccessible buildings, have all added drops to this growing tidal wave that threatens to wash away my human rights. The wave crests here: with people nodding at the notion that when medical services are overwhelmed, of course doctors must value younger, healthier lives over older, disabled lives. When the choice must be made, seniors and disabled people are, as the Nazis put it, “life unworthy of life.” 

How do we face this pandemic while upholding the values of social justice? 

I think we’re all going to learn about that as the days unfold, but I have some thoughts. For now, stay home. Go nowhere that isn’t absolutely necessary. Not just to protect yourselves, but to protect others. Check in with your senior and disabled friends and neighbours. By phone, text or email; don’t come to their door. And whenever someone suggests that it’s “only” little old ladies who will die, speak up. Tell everyone about a little old lady that you love and value and want to live. 

This is what we can all do. So let’s do it together.

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.


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  • says:

    Thank you, Dorothy, for writing so eloquently about this. Seniors do matter, for without them we lose our history. Those with disabilities matter, for without them we wouldn't be able to celebrate our differences. My prayer is that a vaccine is found quickly and administered to those with the highest risk first. God bless you in your isolation and may many people reach out through social media and by phone to help keep you in touch with the outside world.

  • says:

    Thank you for this very thoughtful perspective.

  • says:

    You say that like it's a bad thing. In this world where the chief enemy, like it or not, is overpopulation, fighting to preserve the lives of little old ladies and little old men (like me) is waging war against the planet itself. The elderly consume the lion's share of health care dollars during their last few years of life, to no-one's advantage. We don't contribute much in the way of wisdom, despite what we say, and clinging to life as if it were a gift from God is dreadfully passé. I will happily shuffle off this mortal coil as soon as the opportunity presents itself.


    • says:

      No offence, but what you wrote has no basis in facts or science.
      Overpopulation is a myth.
      What we have a problem is with inefficient management of Earth's resources (which is a product of capitalism).

      We have several times the number of empty homes per each homeless person anywhere you go, and we keep people homeless intentionally because we prohibit access/use to goods and services through 'money' (even though its actually been stated on multiple occasions that it would be cheaper and less time consuming to just give people homes than keeping them out in the streets or in jail).

      We have been producing enough food to feed 10 billion people since 2012 (today, the figures are bigger), and yet nearly 50% of it is thrown away because it doesn't meet the industry aesthetic standards, or it's given to animals which are slaughtered for needless human consumption (over 70% of globally produced soy is given to animals as their feed, whereas 24% of soy is used for oil extraction and only 6% of the soy globally produced is consumed by humans).

      Over 70 BILLION land animals alone are needlessly slaughtered every year for food (which is utterly inexcusable and unnecessary because humans don't have to eat animals in the first place).
      Do you realise the amount of land area and resources (food, water, etc.) which are required for animal farming?
      The emission numbers alone surpass even all of the global transportation emissions COMBINED.
      Plus, the 70 billion land animals is a low figure... this number increases to OVER 1 TRILLION animals every year when you factor in all the marine life humans cull needlessly from the oceans every year.

      THAT (in addition to cyclical consumption and 'indefinite growth' models as a result of CAPITALISM) is something Earth cannot possibly sustain.

      Overpopulation is a ridiculous myth that has been perpetrated by uneducated humans who don't understand that our problems are rooted in the outdaded/outmoded socio-economic system (and practices) we currently use (meanwhile, they focus on the symptoms).

      Not saving lives of the disabled and the elderly is utterly reprehensible.
      Darwin himself never spoke of 'survival of the fittest', but rather 'survival of the most adaptive' (who then went on to help the least able in the group to survive/adapt).

      Coronavirus has a potential to be more deadly in the elderly, disabled, etc. due to several factors: advanced age, lowered immune system and underlying health conditions to name a few.

      That doesn't mean everyone else isn't at equal risk of getting infected or possibly dying from it if there are complications (which is certainly possible) nor does it mean that people shouldn't self-isolate if they are infected and/or advised to do so.

      Also, thinking you shouldn't help others just because you might be younger and fitter is really irresponsible (a prime example of capitalist brainwashing which makes a person stupidly blind to the fact that without sharing, cooperation and helping each other, Human civilization would never have existed in the first place - capitalism is a more recent invention, and scientific studies have confirmed over and over again that humans are not born selfish, greedy, or anything else for that matter - human behaviour is dependent on the environment in which we live, and right now, we live in a system which is based on 'indefinite growth', competition, cost efficiency and profit - not sustainability, cooperation, sharing, problem solving and technical efficiency).

      The overall discrimination against the elderly and disabled is quite evident in current society... and it's not a pleasant sight to behold.


      • says:

        Why digress frrom the point of the article? She called for respecting the value of others' lives. Is blaming overpopulation or capitalism or some other socio-economic problem as the major cause for a lack of compassion for the elderly necessary? Why be so negative? We can agree on the morality of caring for the vulnerable without resorting to blame or shame jargon in order to justify loving people.

  • says:

    Dorothy Ellen Palmer, the author, sounds like an unselfish common-sense humanitarian. It must have been disconcerting to hear the type of remarks that she commented on, mostly voiced over social media. I doubt whether most people would say anything like this to someone's face. They hide behind their computers where they'll say just about anything. I wonder if they have given much thought to how they actually sound? I don't think that I would want any one of them for a friend.

  • says:

    Well said Dorothy Ellen Palmer, you make good sense, Us Golden Oldies do seem to be classed as disposable entities by some of the younger ‘wet behind the ears’ crowd.

  • says:

    Right on!

  • says:

    This is so true. Thank you for putting into words what I have been thinking.

  • says:

    You can take precautions, but to live in fear as you seem to be doing, is not Christian. (We are not called to fear)
    As well, as Christians we have and need to continue to uphold others in the love of Christ, and to support human dignity.
    But remember, "In Christ" we have no rights, we gave our rights to Christ who is in us.
    Finally, why are you worried about what others think about you because of your age. It is a blessing from God to have grey hairs. (I personally have lost some of mine)

  • says:

    This is an important article. I am a senior myself, I can hardly believe it, but here I am. The thought that my rich, fulfilling and interesting life might end too soon as a result of this illness is not a happy one. The thought that my life is devalued as a life less worthy than someone else's is shocking. So the 30 year old who smokes and drinks has a more valuable life than mine based on age alone?

    Ms. Palmer raises some excellent points here and we would do well to follow her example.

  • says:

    in our church bulletin on Sunday. Author?
    Prayer for a Pandemic
    May we who are merely inconvenienced remember those whose lives are at stake;
    May we who have no risk factors remember the most vulnerable;
    May we who have the luxury of working from home remember those who must choose between preserving their health or making their rent;
    May we who have the flexibility to care for our children when their schools close remember those who have no options;
    May we who have to cancel our trips remember those who have no safe place to go;
    May we who are losing our margin money in the tumult of the economic market remember those who have no margin at all
    May we who settle in for a quarantine at home remember those who have no home.
    As fear grips our country, let us choose love.
    During this time when we cannot physically wrap our arms around each other, let us find ways to be God's loving embrace to our neighbours.
    In the name of Jesus, the Great Physician: our healer, sustainer, and hope - in life, in death, in life beyond death,


    • says:


  • says:

    Wow! No one can take a life. That is sinful thinking that anyone is less than our own selves. Let alone actively kill, taking God and them for granted.
    Two years later we have learned hopefully a lot.
    Viruses should be treated right off the bat, as any illness that travels should be. We all see how the lockdowns have been harmful to children's development, closing of businesses harmful to the economy and more. Churches have been silent all over the world... OUCH!
    Mental health concerns are on the rise; aggression is up.

    Bill Gates just made a killing by selling much of his Pfizer stock just before it fell. He was looking pretty happy.
    Is it about cash for those who seem to worship money?

    I did learn these things and am still learning.
    *Respect your God given body.
    *God does not use fear, humans do.
    *Stay out of Homes for seniors.
    Science is discovering more about how things work along life.
    *Only God is Science.
    *Community Gardens are vital as food sources are hampered.
    * We are God's hand, feet and voice.

    *And a truly real virus does NOT tell you it's coming.

    This is not over as drugs are rising in cost, and are a lucrative business. I guess I never thought I'd be drugged up by anyone, let alone a Democratic government.