WA border reopening: Disabled and immunocompromised relieved it’s still closed

WA border reopening: Disabled and immunocompromised relieved it’s still closed

Western Australia’s border is dividing the nation – but one woman says it “hurts” that people think it should open.

When Western Australia announced it was keeping its borders shut last week, I almost cried with relief. Straight away, my phone started pinging with messages from friends celebrating what this means for me; the freedom to live my life.

I have a complex disability called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also known by the misnomer chronic fatigue syndrome. This means my immune system is dysregulated and hypersensitive, making me high-risk for Covid and unable to get the vaccine. To protect myself, when WA opens up to the world, I’ll be forced to shut my doors.

I know the idea of isolating for an indefinite period of time may sound extreme to you. But it was a mild virus combined with other everyday triggers, like brief exposure to household mould, that destroyed my health when I was only 31. Getting Covid is not an option for me. And I’m far from alone.

There are hundreds of thousands of disabled and immunocompromised Australians already sheltering in place. Connecting with this community, made me realise just how privileged I’ve been, to live a normal life since the pandemic began. For many of my new-found friends in NSW and Victoria, this will be their third year living in isolation.

Since the announcement was made, I’ve seen people I know ranting on social media about how the border closure means less tourists for their small business. Others complain about not being able to travel the world. The media has shared endless stories of people with disrupted travel plans, but I’m yet to see a headline centring on the voices of the medically vulnerable.

I feel for the people who are separated from family, but the pandemic has impacted all of us, in ways big and small. I’m tired of feeling like my life is a bargaining chip people would gladly trade in for a flight to Europe.

I’d like to ask the people complaining, if they understand what it feels like to be isolated for months at a time. And I don’t mean as part of a statewide lockdown, where everyone is in the same boat and accessible Zoom events are a-plenty. After I first acquired my disability, I spent six months largely housebound because I was too unwell to navigate the outside world.

This isn’t an experience I ever wanted to repeat, and I don’t think it’s possible to appreciate the distressing loneliness that comes from being stuck inside four walls, while life outside moves on without you.

What I remember most about this time was spending hours in the backyard, staring up at the sky. Watching with envy as the honeyeaters swooped in and then flew away, free, while I laid still on the grass, trapped by illness.

If the last two years have taught us anything, isn’t it that health is a privilege? And that it can be taken away at random, at any given time? Over five million have died from the virus and millions more have become chronically ill with long Covid. Yet, we seem happy to treat people with “underlying health conditions” as collateral damage, in our race to get back to normal.

Nothing in this pandemic is black and white, but one thing I know for sure is this; my life is worth protecting. As are the lives of so many other high-risk Australians around the country. If WA’s border closure keeps vulnerable people safe, for a little while longer, doesn’t that make it worthwhile? It hurts to see how many people in the community disagree.

Natalia Hodgins is a freelance writer and disability advocate.

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