This past week I wrote an open letter to the Premier and Chief Medical Officer of Nova Scotia concerning my disappointment and anger toward the vaccine rollout in the province. Nova Scotia, like New Brunswick where I would be studying social work if not for COVID-19, does not include people living with type 1 diabetes in their list of chronic or complex medical conditions, which allow for vaccination priority. For that reason, I express the same outrage and disappointment toward Premier Blaine Higgs in New Brunswick.
It is a mistake to overlook type one diabetes for vaccine priority, as it is a complex disease that results in an increased risk for severe complications from the COVID-19 virus. A study of 61 million medical records in England that accounted for demographic factors, such as age and comorbidities, found that the risk of dying from COVID-19 is almost three times higher for type one diabetics. Further, when experiencing any form of illness – be it viral, bacterial, or fungal, type one diabetics are at risk for diabetic-specific complications such as ketoacidosis which is also life-threatening.
Type one diabetics are also more likely to be immunocompromised, which is the reality for myself and many others. That further puts us at risk by increasing the possibility of infection. In fact, I was once infected with a virus that took a year to fight off, and as a result, I feel that I know my fate if I were to contract COVID-19. Not only that, over the pandemic while many have avoided colds, I have had two, even though I rarely leave my house and am always masked and sanitized.
From the first day the virus entered Canada I have lived in fear, as I am unsure of what would happen to me if I were to, God forbid, contract COVID-19. I have been incredibly patient and hopeful that soon the targeted population would include young people living with type 1 diabetes. After months of waiting, however, I see that will not be the case in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick.
Health is not correlated to how someone appears on the outside. So, although I appear youthful and healthy, my body is not strong enough to protect me. It is a stereotype that young people living with invisible illness know all too well: “you can’t be sick, you’re so young and look great!” We’re also familiar with the hostile gazes from older adults and the elderly as we take advantage of at-risk hours at the grocery stores. Age is meaningless when you live with a chronic autoimmune disease.
Imagine how it feels to be 25 with your whole life ahead of you, yet your fate is uncertain and you are staring potential complications and death in the face, because you are being overlooked. I feel that the value of mine and other young people’s lives and what we contribute, especially as we rebuild the economy, is ignored here.
I am currently completing my Bachelor of Social Work degree, which I have done entirely virtually throughout the pandemic. I pursued social work so I could play a role in protecting vulnerable populations. Yet, as I see it now, no one is willing to protect me, especially those in authority who are entrusted with that responsibility.
I want to raise some questions to those who have overlooked us. Are we invisible? Do our lives matter at all to you? What will it take for you to open your eye? Will it be mine, or another young person with type one diabetes, unnecessary death? In my opinion, these decisions display how deeply entrenched ableism and stereotypes about what it means to be healthy are in Canadian society.
Lauren Ripley is currently living in Sydney, Nova Scotia and is a social work student at St. Thomas University.
A version of this commentary first appeared in the Chronicle Herald on May 1, 2021.