opinion

The problem with our obsession with "underlying health conditions."

This week, I asked my colleagues a question. 

"Who here has an 'underlying health condition' as specified by the government?"

Me! Me! Me! Me! Ping. Ping. Ping. Ping. Turns out a fair few of my colleagues would classify themselves as such.

It wasn't a surprising response, because an underlying health condition could be anything from heart disease to asthma. 

In fact, medical practitioner Dr Vyom Sharma told The Project on Tuesday night at least 40 percent of Australians fall into this category. 

Here's Dr Sharma. Post continues after video.


Video via The Project.

It's a category we hear being wheeled out in COVID briefings every single day in the same breath as announcing who has lost their life to the virus overnight.

"Let's be careful with language," wrote Emergency Physician Stephen Parnis online.

"Millions of us live quite normally with underlying conditions. If it is used as a measure of risk, fine. If it is used to somehow mitigate responsibility for bad outcomes, that's unacceptable."

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The reason for his warning is because of the colloquial way that phrase is being increasingly used in the context of, "BUT, they had underlying health conditions..." As if that somehow makes someone's death from COVID-19, expected? 

Okay? 

Inevitable?

It's also a phrase that's been co-oped by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers who declare; I don't have any health conditions. The virus won't kill me. I don't need a vaccine. Open up my local pub, now.

It's an extension of the same moral ugliness we saw in the first COVID wave, when those who wanted their 'freedoms' back immediately kept telling us all that "only old people are dying". As if your life doesn't matter so much if you're over a certain age, so why bother trying to save them from the virus? 

This time around, we're using different language in an effort to explain away or excuse young people who are dying. They are not like us. They have an 'underlying health condition.'

Writer Ebony Kenna had an interesting observation as she watched this rhetoric bubble away.

"‘Underlying health conditions’ is the new ‘but what was she wearing?’" she mused. 

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She's right, in a way. Of course this topic should never be conflated with sexual harassment, but there is a level of victim blaming happening here. 

It's as though what we're really saying is that the virus is not responsible for killing people. Rather, it's their 'underlying health conditions.' 

People With Disability Australia President Samantha Connor shares the same feeling. She told SBS including that information in the public announcements can be "anxiety-provoking" and is tantamount to "victim-blaming".

While it could be considered ethically reprehensible that the government is including these details at all, it's really us - the people watching - drawing conclusions from it. As if this small detail can tell us whether we can either breathe a sigh of relief or not. 

It's a ridiculous concept. Because it makes the assumption that the death of someone who didn't have any underlying health condition is somehow more tragic. More devastating.

The youngest Australian to die in this pandemic so far is Aude Alaskar, 27, who lost his life in his south-west Sydney home in August. 

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Media and armchair experts were quick to point out that his family had a history of heart issues. We don't know if he did - but his family did. It was a caveat used by some to point out that not all healthy 27-year-old men were going to die from this virus. 

It's a dangerous game to play. 

Not just because we've learnt time and time again from countries with far more serious outbreaks than us, that COVID doesn't discriminate. It can and does kill the perfectly 'healthy'. But also because it makes it sound as though just under half the population is expendable. 

It's okay. They had an underlying health condition. 

This virus is turning us into soulless, selfish health police who blame our neighbours for their ill-health. 

Whether someone is vaccinated or not (another detail announced with each new death in the COVID briefing) is somewhat helpful. It helps to reiterate the need for all of us to get double-jabbed.

But having 'underlying health conditions' isn't a choice someone can make. As Dr Parnis pointed out, it's not just being used as a measure of risk anymore - it's being used, in some circles, to mitigate responsibility. 

But, again, having asthma is not a choice. 

Having a congenital heart defect is not a choice. 

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Having an autoimmune disease is not a choice. 

Having MS is not a choice.

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Perfectly healthy people are dying from COVID-19. 

Australians with underlying health conditions are too. At a higher rate - yes. But one death isn't more devastating than the other.

Let's remember that every time our leaders read out the latest fatalities from this awful virus. 

For more from Gemma Bath, keep up to date with her articles here, or follow her on Instagram,  @gembath.

Feature image: Getty/NSW Government.

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