COLUMN: Stop saying ‘only’ the elderly and immunocompromised


AP Photo/John Antczak

A Caltrans freeway sign reads: “Wash your hands, Stay healthy, Avoid COVID-19” in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. California Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling for all bars, wineries, nightclubs and brewpubs to close in the nation’s most populous state. Also Sunday, he urged seniors and people with chronic health conditions to isolate themselves at home in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Not everyone has the privilege of being young, healthy and without risk.

It may not be you, but you definitely know someone that fits into one — or all — of those categories.

An estimated 60 percent of American adults have chronic health conditions with 40 percent having two or more, according to data provided by the CDC. The Administration for Community Living reported 49.2 million Americans were 65 and older in 2016. 

These vulnerable populations make up a large percentage of Americans.

Despite this, there seems to be a notion across social media that it doesn’t matter if these individuals catch the virus – even though these pre-existing conditions can make cases fatal. 

While humor is undoubtedly used as a coping mechanism in times of high stress such as this, there’s a line. A line that’s been crossed twofold since the coronavirus pandemic began. 

Tweets poking fun at those fighting for their lives during this time – some going as far to call the disease “the boomer remover” – get hundreds of thousands of likes. What if someone tweeted this about your parents or grandparents? Or someone else in your life that you loved that just happened to be a “boomer”? It may seem like a harmless joke, but for those living with increased risk in these times, it’s simply inhumane.

This entitled attitude shifted slightly on social media when Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife Rita Wilson had the virus last week.

Hanks and his wife are perfect examples of why the rhetoric surrounding the vulnerable population is so harmful. Both in their 60s, Hanks also has diabetes and Wilson is a breast cancer survivor. They fall into two of the three categories for increased risk.  

If someone were to make a joke about Hanks’ condition on any social media platform, they’d be attacked relentlessly. So why is it okay for people to joke about the conditions of others – even if it’s hypothetical? 

Aside from memes about the situation, post after post has tried  to reassure the masses that these vulnerable individuals will be the “only” ones that die.

In what world is that reassuring? In what world is that okay to say? 

Saying the coronavirus “only” affects those who are at risk, immunocompromised or elderly is not only in poor taste, it reflects ageist and ableist attitudes that – whether you want to admit it or not –  have become normalized in our society.  

While it could be argued that these are simply jokes with no intention of participating in discriminatory behavior, consider their very definitions. 

Ageism is “stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age,” according to the World Health Organization. Ableism is “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities,” according to the Center for Disability Rights

Not every joke or meme about the situation comes across this way, but it’s clear there’s an underlying negative attitude from some making these jokes towards these higher-risk individuals. This rhetoric makes it seem like they’re expendable simply because of factors they cannot control – they’re not. 

Perhaps I wouldn’t be so conscious of how harmful this rhetoric is if I didn’t have countless people that I love who fall into these increased risk categories.

But every time I see a post devaluing someone or poking fun at potential victims of the pandemic, I can’t help but think of my 18-year-old friend already suffering from cystic fibrosis. Or one of my best friends’ fathers already suffering from multiple sclerosis. Or my 51-year-old uncle already suffering from diabetes. Or my 75-year-old grandfather already suffering from Parkinson’s.

Their lives matter. 

Regardless of the differences that separate generations, we’re all human. We all deserve to make it through this pandemic. Do what you need to do to cope. All I’m asking is for you to have a little compassion. These are scary and uncertain times – for everyone.