SAN FRANCISCO — In early January, one of the country’s top public health officials went on national television and delivered what she called “really encouraging news” on Covid-19: A recent study showed that more than three-fourths of fatalities from the omicron variant of the virus occurred among people with several other medical conditions.
“These are people who were unwell to begin with,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walensky’s remarks infuriated Americans with disabilities, who say the pandemic has highlighted how the medical establishment — and society at large — treats their lives as expendable. Among those leading the protest was San Franciscan Alice Wong, an activist who took to Twitter to denounce Walensky’s comments as “ableism.” Walensky later apologized.
Wong, 47, moves and breathes with the aid of a power wheelchair and a ventilator because of a genetic neuromuscular condition. Unable to walk from around age 7, she took refuge in science fiction and its stories of mutants and misunderstood minorities.
Her awakening as an activist happened in 1993, when she was in college in Indiana, where she grew up. Indiana’s Medicaid program had paid for attendants who enabled Wong to live independently for the first time, but state cuts forced her to switch schools and move back in with her parents. Wong relocated to the Bay Area for graduate school, choosing a state that would help her cover the cost of hiring personal care attendants. She has since advocated for better public health benefits for people who are poor, sick, or older or have disabilities.
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