British Columbia·Opinion

I'm 22, chronically ill — and feel dismissed in the COVID-19 dialogue

Public dialogue has been flooded with the notion that the coronavirus will only have devastating consequences for the vulnerable. And it’s hard to hear some people say 'at least I am not them' while ignoring orders for social distancing. Disabled and chronically ill lives are not disposable, writes 22-year-old Bailey Martens.

It’s hard to hear some people say 'at least I am not them' and ignore social distancing

Bailey Martens, pictured at the University of British Columiba in Vancouver, was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome at the age of 10. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Bailey Martens, who lives in Vancouver and is immunocompromised. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I am 22 and immunocompromised. 

Living through the COVID-19 pandemic is scary for everyone, but it's traumatic and potentially debilitating for me.

Despite the comprehensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been little written about what it feels like to be considered high risk. It frustrates me to be dismissed because "only the most vulnerable need to worry." 

B.C.'s public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has urged the public to avoid crowds and to take self-isolation seriously. The province and the City of Vancouver have subsequently declared a state of emergency. The city specifically noted that it would soon have the power to close all restaurants to in-person patrons indefinitely. 

But when I scroll through social media, I see many of my friends enjoying brunch in close proximity and considering booking cheap airline tickets instead of participating in social distancing. 

I've had to practise social distancing for years. 

At 10, I was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes burning chronic pain, limited mobility, and impacts my immune system. As a result, any illness hits me harder than others. Even a simple cold can linger far longer than others. 

Martens has had to practice social distancing since she was a kid. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In 2009, when a friend showed up to school with all the symptoms of H1N1, I contracted it. I spent three weeks at home quarantined before I was fully able to integrate back into school.

I grew up begging my mom to take me on a drive just so I could see the outside world and feel the sunshine. We ate pancakes at restaurants during off hours despite our hunger cues to avoid crowds. 

In 2016, my parents installed a hospital-grade air filter in our home. For the first time, I felt like I could breathe without hesitation. 

I started wearing a N95 mask a few years ago. The frequent stares and questioning force me to choose whether I should attempt to fit in or protect myself. I take a gamble depending on the day.

Being trapped in your home while the world keeps spinning is an awful feeling — you find yourself savouring every human interaction. Most people aren't used to this: staying home feels foreign for them. And so, as we face a pandemic now, rather than laying low and flattening the curve, some people are going out because they think they're immune to COVID-19. 

Public dialogue has been flooded with the notion that the coronavirus will only have devastating consequences for the vulnerable — those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly. But it's hard to hear that people are simply grateful they aren't me. "At least I am not them" should not be the benchmark. Disabled and chronically ill lives are not disposable. 

On March 14, #HighRiskCovid19 took Twitter by storm as thousands posted photos of themselves, or someone they care about, urging the public to protect their wellbeing.

 

For the  44 per cent of Canadians who are chronically ill, the social distancing brought on by COVID-19 is likely nothing new. It's important to think about how vulnerable populations will be impacted physically and mentally by the decisions you are making during this pandemic.  

In the past, when I have asked my roommates to get a flu shot, all 30 girls in my dorm told me they didn't believe in the vaccine or they didn't have time. I told them my safety depended on it. 

All I'm asking is for you to do what the public health authorities advise, and learn something in the process. Because for healthy folk, this will eventually calm down and you will move on with only with a distant memory of the time the world shut down. 

But for me, there's always another flu season, and I hope you'll start to understand the fear in that. I hope you'll choose to keep me safe. 

About the Author

Bailey Martens is a student at the University of British Columbia and a freelance journalist.

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