This is the third in a series of blogs about the movement response to COVID-19.
In this age of the novel coronavirus, millions of people in the United States—those who are not considered essential workers or did not lose their jobs—are continuing to work remotely for the foreseeable future. Faced with the deadly realities of this contagious disease, there has been a mass migration of conferences, community programming, and workplaces to the internet. Now that non-disabled people and corporations require reasonable workplace accommodations in order to continue to function under COVID-19, our culture is beginning to universalize the victories of the disability justice and fat liberation movements. In New York City especially, we are seeing dramatic changes in how we work and move in the world, in addition to greater clarity around why certain communities are viewed as expendable during this public health crisis. Fat liberation and disability justice organizers have long articulated the injustices of our current sociopolitical environment, where they are uniquely vulnerable, and demanded the very work policies that are now becoming commonplace.
The narrative around COVID-19 so far has been that certain communities are more vulnerable to the virus, but, in actuality, people are more vulnerable to the dangers of disparate medical treatment and discrimination. There is evidence showing that some triage medical care guidelines for ventilator rationing are biased against people with disabilities, the chronically ill, people without health insurance, fat people, and elders. As the access to ventilators in hospitals nationwide remains limited and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declares being fat a “risk factor” for COVID-19, countless disabled and fat people are gripped by concerns that they won’t be met with the same degree of empathy and urgency of medical care as their non-disabled and thin counterparts.
The denial of treatment from physicians is far too common for both disabled and fat people, as they often experience stigma and a lack of responsiveness from physicians due to their conditions or weight. This leads to a potentially fatal worsening of their health while searching for healthcare professionals who will actually listen to their concerns. While the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the fundamental inadequacies of the medical care industry, people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, and fat people have faced long histories of discrimination due to the fact that our world was constructed with the primary comfort of non-disabled and thin people in mind. Understanding the roots of discrimination against these marginalized communities helps us both make sense of these vulnerabilities and understand the refusal of the system to accommodate their needs.
Fundamentally, ableism and fatphobia are rooted in the historical population control movement known as eugenics, white supremacy, and the European colonization of the Global South. These toxic ideologies attempted to 1) create a global standard of what is a beautiful and good body that centers non-disabled white thinness and, 2) pathologize body types that do not fit into this supremacist standard as disposable, broken, or undesirable. Black and brown people who are disabled, fat, or chronically ill suffer the most from ableism and fatphobia due to the historical subjugation of people of color that began centuries ago. Take Sarah Baartman—an enslaved Khoikhoi woman from what is now known as South Africa. She was paraded and hypersexualized as a “freak show” attraction in Great Britain and France throughout the early 1810s due to her curvaceous physique. Even after her death, she continued to be exploited: her remains were on display at the French anthropology museum (Musée de l'Homme) for over 150 years until 1974. Sarah Baartman was one of many colonized and enslaved people who were dissected and dehumanized because they did not exist within the constraints of the European definition of the ideal body.
Fatphobia and ableism continue to manifest in myriad contemporary ways, some of those being fewer job opportunities and limited access to participate in social events because of restrictive public spaces. In order to fully address the painful legacies of prejudice against fat and disabled bodies and the particular vulnerabilities these populations face during COVID-19 care rationing, we are tasked with committing to the disability justice and fat liberation principles that demand we see our individual liberation as tied up with everyone else’s liberation. Those of us committed to movement advocacy and organizing must dedicate ourselves to taking care of one another without the use of strategies like policing, surveillance, or incarceration that dispose of people. We must commit to continuing to educate ourselves about all social issues and push back on the oppressive idea that one’s health, appearance, ability to work, or ability to be “productive” are the determinant of one’s value to society.
The capacity to utilize flexible arrangements like work-from-home is inherently rooted in the work of disability justice and fat liberation organizers who have called and continue to call for inclusive approaches to making sure everyone, regardless of ability, is free to participate in our society. Many of the victories from the disability justice movement, like curb cuts, have had an impact on the world at large: although they are meant to accommodate people with disabilities, non-disabled people from all walks of life (e.g., parents with strollers) utilize curb cuts. When we don’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to society and instead center the needs of the most vulnerable, everybody gets free.
We could be cynical at this moment, or we use this unprecedented time as an opportunity to push for a change in the way our society operates. We must follow the leadership of those who are deeply impacted by this pandemic and will suffer the most from COVID-19 equipment shortages that deprioritize patients who have “poorer qualities of life” and will be considered less likely to recover. The COVID-19 #NoBodyIsDisposable campaign—made up of people with disabilities, old people, fat people, and people who are HIV/AIDS positive or have other chronic illnesses—is dedicated to bringing awareness to the various kinds of oppression present in emergency medical treatment. Moreover, this visionary campaign goes beyond healthcare and calls on officials to prioritize the socioeconomic resources and supplies needed for everyone to survive shelter-in-place. #NoBodyIsDisposable demands a radical shift from a scarcity model that positions the worth of some lives over others to a framework of abundance that includes healthcare, housing, nutrition, and financial relief for all. Disability justice and fat liberation organizers have been reminding all of us for decades that we must reconfigure our notions of productivity that are rooted in white supremacist capitalism. By permanently increasing accessibility options in all aspects of life, we open the door to the possibility for real collective freedom: the type of freedom where we don't leave anyone behind.