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The Problem With Saying 'Only' the Elderly and Immunocompromised Will Be Affected by COVID-19

By now, most of us know the worldwide threat of COVID-19, a new strain in the coronavirus family. Information about the virus, new cases and new testing and containment protocols are being released to the public every single day, piling in from sources ranging from the World Health Organization (WHO) to local news channels.

While it’s incredible that we have immediate access to COVID-19 updates, there’s one big problem with the way the media has been covering the outbreak. We have reporters, social media influencers and other public figures trying to reassure us that we’re probably going to be fine — well, most of us anyway. All of us except the elderly and immunocompromised.

“Don’t worry,” they say. “Wash your hands and carry on,” they advise. “You’re young, it’s not like you’ll die or anything! It’s just the elderly and people with compromised immune systems that will be affected!”

As if people in those groups don’t matter. People like me. I have primary immunodeficiency. Hi.

I won’t lie, COVID-19 concerns me, just as it concerns my neighbors and friends who have stronger immune systems. Luckily, the infection control procedures recommended to the general public — things like thorough and frequent hand washing, covering one’s mouth when sneezing and cleaning surfaces that are frequently touched — are standard operating procedure for a lot of people like me. I didn’t need to raid my local store for hand sanitizer and bleach wipes because I already have a cupboard full of that stuff. I’m doing my best to remain vigilant, keep my doctors’ appointments and avoid crowds.

As of March 4, the Immune Deficiency Foundation’s stance on COVID-19 has been to provide factual information and encourage vigilance without inciting panic. Many other advocacy organizations for patients with respiratory or immune system conditions, such as the British Heart Trust and the American Lung Association have issued similar advice. The WHO and CDC are also quick to give advice and guidance on COVID-19 issues and acknowledge that some populations may be at greater risk without diminishing the fact that COVID-19 is not just an issue for those groups.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like a lot of news outlets are following this sound practice. They’re going on about how only “old folks’ homes” and “sick people” will be at risk. When did it become acceptable to comfort the public by reassuring them that “Hey, you’re not the one who might die”? Or to assume that it will all be cool because only “those people over there” will have issues? Aside from the fact that it’s actually not true — being healthy doesn’t grant anyone guaranteed immunity from potential complications — have they considered, even for a second, that those “old folks” and “sick people” are listening, reading or watching too, and don’t deserve to have their lives considered afterthoughts?

Instead of shrugging off more medically vulnerable populations, has it ever dawned on any of these pundits to offer some advice to help? You know, like telling people with robust immune systems to be especially careful because they could still pass COVID-19 to an immunocompromised person? Or insisting that public facilities be proactive about ensuring their restrooms are cleaned often and always stocked with soap and working faucets? How about advocating for more sick day coverage and fewer repercussions for workers who need to take time off to avoid spreading COVID-19 or other illnesses? Or reminding people to check on homebound neighbors and relatives?

You can reassure the public about COVID-19 without throwing some of the public under the bus. Really, you can. Please make the effort.

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Unsplash image via Ani Kolleshi