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When you say coronavirus will only kill the vulnerable, you’re talking about me

As the coronavirus turned into a pandemic, I’ve watched public figures try to reassure people that only vulnerable people—people like me—will die.

When you say coronavirus will only kill the vulnerable, you’re talking about me
[Photo: Ahmet Sali/Unsplash; Olga Beliaeva/iStock]

When news of COVID-19 started to spread, there were two popular responses. The first was to rush to the store, buying N95 masks and hand sanitizer until shelves were bare. The second was to shrug and comfort the masses because mostly immunocompromised people—people like me—would die.

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On Twitter, I have watched both parties with frustration. The first group—the one cleaning store shelves of masks—has left none for immunocompromised people and healthcare workers who need them. The surgeon general begged the public to stop buying masks, explaining that they are not effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the general public.

Despite my frustrations with the first group, it was the second that really infuriated me. I have watched tweet after tweet—some of them authored by journalists with large followings—assuring the general population that only the most vulnerable, including immunocompromised people and the elderly, will die.

In late February, Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, told his 420,000 followers “don’t panic.” But he seems to have assumed that his readers don’t include immunocompromised people like me. When I shared his tweet, asking facetiously whether the public is aware that immunocompromised people can read, many of my immunocompromised peers responded. Many expressed not only their fear of COVID-19 but also their frustration with the insistence that there was nothing to worry about since most of the people who die would likely just be people like us. It feels like everyone around me is reveling in my expendability.

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Engel was far from the only person to reassure the world that only people like me would die. He is not wrong: We are the most likely to die. He is also correct that we should not panic, because panic is not productive. But all of us should be worried—especially because the only way our vulnerable will survive is if healthy people do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19.

What it means to be immunocompromised

It is easy to dismiss a group of people you don’t know much about. I have been immunocompromised since 2015 after I was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 19. My only chance at survival was a bone marrow transplant. For 5 years, I have been on a range of immunosuppressive medications as my doctors and I carefully balance my risk of infection with my body’s need for immune suppression after my transplant.

Since then, I have lived in constant fear. In the first year, I looked like a cancer patient. My hair was nonexistent, then it was short and thin. My limbs were emaciated from months of chemo-induced sickness. I wore a mask everywhere I went. But over time, my appearance gradually improved. I stopped wearing the mask as my immune system improved from “critical” to “poor.” I returned to school and work. If you looked at me today, you would have no idea that I am still immunocompromised.

I am one of an estimated 9 million immunocompromised people in the United States. We are people who have survived cancer, organ transplants, autoimmune diseases, and more. Despite popular belief, we are not all hidden away in homes and hospital rooms. Many of us work, especially in the United States, which has a far weaker social safety net than peer countries. Bills do not stop coming when you become chronically ill—in fact, for most of us the bills get exponentially bigger. Outside of working, chronically ill people still have errands to run, educational goals to pursue, and family events to attend just like anybody else.

Since my bone marrow transplant, I have been told time and time again that this world is not built for me. Professors in college often encouraged me to drop out of school in response to an excused absence, even when my grade in the course was good. An apartment building I used to live in had no accessible parking, leaving me to hobble two blocks home when my leg broke, a complication caused by my cancer treatment.

The rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 again reminds me that this world does not want to accommodate me. Engel and others who are proclaiming that we should not panic since only people like me will die are not talking to me. In fact, it often feels like no one is thinking or talking about how to protect me. Instead, immunocompromised people talk among ourselves, wondering whether the world will realize that we are here and our lives depend on the healthy population’s willingness to follow the CDC’s recommendations.

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Others, including our president, are also continuing to compare the number of coronavirus deaths to the flu in an attempt to minimize what has quickly become a public health crisis. A number of news outlets have also tried to downplay the severity of the virus’s spread and what it means for everyone. Across the board, the government’s response has been mixed, with some counties in California, where I live, banning all events over 5,000 people while others lift quarantines for people who have been exposed.

Those of you who are healthy are welcome to take solace in your low risk of dying from COVID-19. I ask only that you join me in remembering that even though healthy people have a low risk of dying, they have a high risk of transmitting the disease. Immune-compromised people make up almost 3% of the U.S. population. We are at your jobs and in your schools. Let’s work together to protect everyone.


After surviving cancer, Brooke Vittimberga graduated from Stanford in 2019. She will be attending medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

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