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Why Coronavirus Coverage Makes High-Risk Individuals Feel 'Disposable'

LAUREN GILGER: As we report on the spread of the coronavirus in our state and across the country, we hear over and over again that the elderly and immunocompromised are the most at risk. So now let's hear from someone who falls into that group. What are her concerns in light of this disease? And how does she wish the narrative around it would change? Denise Reich is a writer who wrote about this for the Mighty recently, and I spoke with her more about it.

DENISE REICH: The most pertinent things for me that I deal with on a day-to-day basis are primary immune deficiency, which is genetic. It's not contagious. It's something you're born with. And ironically, I was not diagnosed with that until I was over 30, even though I was born with it. It's something called inappropriate sinus tachycardia, which basically is my heart, like speed up for no good reason. It's just kind of random. Those are the most pressing things that I deal with. I also have a lot of secondary conditions. I have asthma. I have fibromyalgia. So there are a bunch of different things in the mix, unfortunately.

GILGER: Yeah. What does that kind of mean for your everyday life? Do you operate differently because of these things?

REICH: It means that I really kind of bounce between doctor's appointments and good days. I don't have a lot of good days. Most of the time, I'm so tired that I do have to stay home. I don't get to do very much. So when I do have a good day, when I'm able to see friends or I'm able to go out and do something, I really, really appreciate it. But even those things have to be tailored for me. So, in other words, if I'm going some place, I have to know that I have some place I can sit and rest. I have to know that I get a meal every so often because my blood sugar can drop. You know, there have to be accommodations made. If I'm going to a show, I have to know that I don't have to walk up and down stairs because I can't do that.

GILGER: So as you've then been watching the news of this coronavirus spread, and as the numbers ratchet up and sort of panic ratchets up in the community, what is your reaction been?

REICH: Interestingly enough, I've been kind of calm. On the one hand, because I'm home most of the time anyway. So it's not that much of a paradigm shift for me. On the other hand, I'm completely terrified because I am in the high risk group. I have immune deficiency. So that alone makes me a lot more nervous. It is a new disease. It's a disease that they don't really know a lot about. They're just treating symptoms right now. There is no treatment for coronavirus. They just have to give supportive care. So knowing that really does unsettle me quite a bit.

GILGER: But, like you say in the in the piece for the Mighty, you write that a lot of the recommendations for limiting your exposure to this are sort of standard procedure for you. Like you already have a cabinet stocked full of Clorox and Purell.

REICH: Exactly. It's kind of, you know, since I've been an adult, it's been the minute you get into the house, you wash your hands, you take your shoes off. The light fixtures and the door handles get wiped down every couple of days. Now I've upped that every day, but it was still part of the routine before. I always have the hand sanitizer with me. I actually have a running joke with a really good friend of mine that she finds weird hand sanitizers and sends them to me. Like the one from Bath and Body works at Halloween — she sent me "vampire blood," and it's great. So that's part of the routine. So luckily for me, that's not as much of a paradigm shift because I do have that as part of the daily routine.

GILGER: Yeah. You also write that a lot of the media coverage of this has made you feel like you don't matter or like this group of people that you belong to — you know, elderly people or people with immunodeficiencies — like they are the ones who need to worry. Other than that, we're all OK.

REICH: It really comes across as a very callous disregard for people. It makes people feel disposable. Oh, it's OK. They're just going to die, not me. Don't worry. You know, it definitely makes you feel like people are not taking it seriously enough and that they just don't care. And there's been a lot of — I mean, there's a lot of discrimination and marginalization of the disabled and the chronically ill community as it is. This is just making it worse.

GILGER: What has the conversation been like in that community? Are you talking to other people in the same kind of position as you? And what do they say?

REICH: I lurk around on Twitter a lot, so I do read what other people say. There is fear among a lot of us that God forbid, we do come down with this. You know, if if the hospital system is overwhelmed, are there going to be enough facilities to treat everyone? That's a major problem that I think everyone's pretty concerned about.

GILGER: So how would you like, then, to see the conversation around not just this change, but maybe the conversation in general change? Like you say, there is sort of a stigma around people in the disability community or people with immunodeficiencies already.

REICH: I think that they need to look at this as a teachable moment. I mean, one of the things that a lot of people in the disabled community are very, very kind of bitter about right now — and I don't blame anyone — is that a lot of the accommodations that are being made or accommodations that disabled people have been asking for for years. Like, for instance, being able to work from home, being able to do classes from home. These are things that people have wanted and said, you know, I can't get to class because I'm sick, but now [it's] suddenly possible. So, you know, it's like, why was that not possible before? I mean, things like even a store cleaning their bathroom, why weren't they doing that already? You know, there were other illnesses that people could catch.

GILGER: Yeah. What would you like to tell everybody else, everybody who thinks of this as either a small population or a population that, you know, it doesn't matter as much or isn't as relevant?

REICH: I think what I'd like people to realize is that statistically, 60% of the American public has some type of underlying condition. About 40 percent of us have more than two underlying conditions. So it could be you. It could be your best friend. It could be your lover. It could be your parents. Your grandparents. It could be your nieces and nephews. Any one of them could get sick. Any one of them could end up in a hospital where they don't have enough ventilators because people did not take this seriously. It doesn't matter if you feel that you're the pinnacle of health. You can still get sick. And you can still pass it on to other people that are not going to bounce back the same way you will.

GILGER: Yeah. All right. That is writer Denise Reich. Her new piece is in the Mighty: The Problem With Saying Only The Elderly And Immunocompromised Will Be Affected By COVID-19. Denise, thank you so much for coming on The Show.

REICH: Thanks for having me.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.