(Image: AAP/Richard Wainwright)

When announcing updates on COVID-19 deaths, authorities are quick to add a caveat: how many of those who died had an underlying health condition. It’s almost like the pandemic version of victim blaming. It’s not the virus killing people, but their pre-existing conditions.

This is problematic in a number of ways. The qualifier diminishes the risk of COVID and ignores the fact that more than 40% of Australians have a medically diagnosed health condition that could worsen its impacts. Due to privacy, public health officials rarely disclose further details about the person’s health. 

In the absence of that context, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of seeing underlying conditions as a caveat or an excuse. If this person didn’t have an underlying health condition, COVID might not have killed them. Do they really “count” as evidence of how deadly the virus is? Is a death without underlying conditions any more serious or tragic than one without them? 

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This kind of thinking is a dangerous road to go down as it undermines the seriousness of this disease. It implies the victim was at fault when most underlying health conditions are anything but, and it can embolden individuals without known underlying conditions to take risks. It makes it easy to lose track of the very real consequences that can come with catching and spreading COVID-19. 

It’s a similar line of thought for those who accuse women of “asking for it” due to their choice of clothing after reporting a sexual assault. It’s unfortunately common for some to unabashedly view these incidents as entirely or even partially the fault of the victim, instead of the perpetrator. 

While this situation is inherently different from sexual assault, the mentality is much the same. Just as what a woman is wearing should never factor into the likelihood of being sexually assaulted, having a clean bill of health should not factor into whether a death from COVID counts in the eyes of the public. 

There is also a huge list of underlying health conditions that can increase the virus’ severity. While forms of cancer, lung disease, liver disease, kidney disease or heart conditions are the most obvious, the same can’t be said for everything. Asthma — something 11% of Australians have — is also on that list. 

All together, the list encompasses a spectrum of health disorders, diseases, disabilities and even lifestyle choices. This includes pregnant women, obesity, substance abuse and people who have smoked tobacco regularly at some point in their lives. 

The line between letting underlying health conditions take the blame for the virus and blaming COVID victims for having those conditions is as blurry as comorbidities get. 

Regardless of whether someone has a disability or a health condition, everyone should be protected from and wary of the dangers of COVID. If you don’t get that, then you aren’t taking the virus seriously.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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