Earlier this week, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont announced his intent to move forward with an age-based approach to COVID-19 vaccine distribution, carving out exceptions only for education and childcare professionals. His office characterized the policy as part of an ongoing effort to “ensure equitable allocation of the vaccine,” especially for “people living in the highest-risk communities.” Dr. Reginald Eadie, co-chair of the Governor’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, told reporters, “Using age as an eligibility criterion makes it clear to all of our residents, especially those who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, that the vaccine is here, it’s available, and provides for an easier registration process to actually receive the vaccine.” And at a press conference on Monday, the governor himself explained his reasoning: “I’m going to focus on the old business motto, K.I.S.S. — keep it simple, stupid.”
The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board extolled this approach as a “smart decision,” writing, “Complexity is the enemy of equity… [Consider] people a few pounds short of the public health definition of obesity. If they ate more doughnuts, could they qualify?”
First, fuck you, Wall Street Journal editorial board. Second, putting the assholery of their framing aside, the implied reasoning is epistemologically and morally bankrupt.
The Journal’s definition of “equity,” Eadie’s definition of the “disproportionately affected,” and Lamont’s definition of “simplicity” mean the unilateral exclusion of people with disabilities and essential employees outside of education and childcare. The latter category comprises the most privileged frontline workers; nearly 93% of Connecticut’s teachers are white, and all have college educations. Local papers have reported frustration among grocery store workers and other people making minimum wage as they sustain our society. But the membership of an undergraduate organization called Disability Empowerment for Yale, or DEFY, also balked at the omission of chronic illness considerations from the state’s coronavirus calculus. As a board member of DEFY, my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing as my peers shared messages of disappointment, devastation, and disbelief.
The governor’s office is using age as a crude proxy for immunity. As Mafalda von Alvensleben, BF ’22, the president of DEFY, put it, “The rollout essentially denies the fact that people with disabilities under the age of 40 exist, a notion that is already perpetuated in our culture. Denying our existence is the bread and butter of discrimination against young people with disabilities, and extending that strategy to the vaccine rollout is a slap in the face to a community that is already grossly underserved by our government.”
The pandemic has caused unimaginable suffering for many people with disabilities, magnified by our invisibility in the eyes of pundits and policymakers alike. From the rationing of ventilators based on “quality of life” concerns among survivors to the dismissive and dangerous rhetoric that “only [the] old and sick” die of COVID, the euphemistic language of “pre-existing conditions” obscures the fundamentally discriminatory nature of America’s public health protocols over the course of this pandemic. People with disabilities are a uniquely marginalized constituency protected under civil rights legislation like the ADA and by Supreme Court-level case law as a quasi-suspect class. And perhaps most importantly, data from the CDC indicate that individuals with pre-existing conditions—a variable constellation of health statuses associated with chronic illness and disability—constitute 94% of COVID-19 fatalities.
Joaquín Lara Midkiff, SY ’23, said, “In quite transparent terms, I’d say that if I were to become infected it might very well be the last thing I do.” He continued, “As someone who has a string of neurological conditions, lung problems and hypertension, I’m at great risk of developing serious disease from the virus.” Indeed, nationally, more than 60% of individuals with underlying conditions are under 60 years old.
Writing in the New Haven Register, Lara Midkiff observed several additional barriers posed by the pandemic to the lives and livelihoods of disabled people, including financial insecurity, mental health challenges, and dependence on in-person therapeutic and educational services lost to public health restrictions. “It is only natural for the governor to seek ways in which to mitigate waste and confusion, and maximize the number of ‘shots in the arm,’” he wrote. “However, what matters more is that vaccines enter the arms of the people who need it most.”
Paige Lawrence, GH ’21, is one such person. She explained, “With my immunodeficiency, I’m extra susceptible to upper respiratory infections. My body simply does not make the requisite antibodies on its own.” Hundreds of miles away from her family in Kansas, Lawrence has spent the last year in total isolation in her New Haven apartment. She receives no visitors; she does not go to the store. Every two weeks, she self-administers the subcutaneous infusions that keep her immune system functioning.
“Receiving the vaccine would enable me to see my parents safely when I graduate in May. It would alleviate the stress of moving, mid-pandemic, halfway across the country after I graduate. It would mean no longer pushing off maintenance for plumbing or infrastructural issues in my apartment out of fear from the virus,” she said. “Ultimately, the vaccine would mean no longer fearing the outside world and its COVID-related dangers quite so much.”
As I was writing this piece, the nonprofit organization Disability Rights Connecticut filed suit against the state of Connecticut, alleging that the governor’s vaccine distribution plan constitutes disability discrimination. But regardless of the legal outcome, the whole affair serves as a reminder of just how far from achieving justice, equity, and dignity the American disability community remains.
When asked to consider the personal implications of the governor’s proposed timeline, Lawrence told me, “By the time I’d be eligible to receive the vaccine, I would have been in total isolation, away from my parents, for nearly fourteen months. In the time I’ve spent without human contact, my peers back home have had entire pregnancies, start to finish. Fellow Yale students have started—and probably ended—long-term relationships. Entire lifetimes in fourteen months, while I’ve been locked away.”
Cover illustration by Laura Padilla-Castellanos.