By Lucia Messent
Image credit: NY Times
As Covid-19 spreads, with 10,000 cases now suspected in the UK, the government continues to reassure us that 98% of the population are safe from significant risk. For the remaining 2%, this is not reassuring.
Accidental or not, phrases like “only the long-term sick are dying” come across as flippant about even accepting of the risk to millions of people.
A leading former nurse stated that a pandemic “would be quite useful” in clearing
“bed-blockers”, because older people “would be taken out of the system” (she later defended her comments on the grounds that they were “ironic”). For their part, the government have launched a public information campaign to prepare the public for the illness. While of course this is important, they provide no advice for those at a higher risk, fostering ideas that these people are outside of central concerns.
In a culture where ableism and ageism are rife, the implication that some people’s lives are less valuable than others is immensely damaging.
As well as being cruelly dismissive, such discourse puts older people and those with heart-problems, asthma and diabetes at greater physical risk. With the general population told not to worry, they are less likely to take precautions to prevent the spread of the disease through simple measures such as regular hand-washing.
Flippant attitudes towards coronavirus are also problematic for those who struggle financially. Where self-isolation seems the obvious course for many, for lower income earners the impact of two weeks off could be devastating.
Some employers don't offer anything more than the minimum statutory sick pay. This basic pay pack amounts to just £94.25 per week, with nothing for the first three days off.
With the period for self isolation set at 14 days, that could mean a budget of less than £188.50 to eat, pay bills, pay prescription fees and care for children or other dependants. This creates a difficult choice: stay at home and risk being unable to feed yourself and your family, or go out to work and put others at risk.
As always with public health crises, the poorest, most marginalised, and disabled are generally worse affected, while the wealthy, connected and healthy have the means to cushion themselves.
People need to realise that not everyone is as fortune and start taking the pandemic more seriously. Being able to cut yourself off from the world to afford the extra heating costs during the day and have enough disposable income to stockpile medicine and food is a privilege.
Not having to worry about the disease because you and your family are in that 98% majority is a privilege.
Rather than overlooking them, the government must put the old, the disadvantaged and the chronically ill at the heart of its thinking about coronavirus.