The Eck’s Factor: Coronavirus exposes eugenicist thinking

Art of a professor in an empty classroom with a few laptops whose screens say "on leave."
(Amanda Ding | Daily Trojan)

I am all for the advocacy that a single petition can invoke. Go ahead, call me an advocacy advocate because every other insult geared toward my leftist, outspoken, collegiate writer status will probably not sting as much as “social justice warrior.” After all, what’s better than a centralized petitioning network that can set signature goals and allow users to share worthy causes across social media platforms? 

I can tell you about many things better than a certain petition that surfaced on last month. The petition, entitled “Keep classes in-person at USC for the mental health of the students,” may be the most egregious piece of writing I have read in a hot minute — which says a lot, considering I binged the entire “Fifty Shades of Grey” series during quarantine. 

A hodgepodge of cherry-picked statistics and half-baked arguments for worker’s rights, the petition garnered widespread attention and nearly 3,000 signatures from students. It also contained offensive comments about Indigenous communities — “Anthropologists always remark at the lack of mental health issues within intact indigenous tribes. This is because they have community! They play, hunt, dance, sleep and love together.” 

I aired my grievances with the petition on Instagram — everyone’s favorite place to suddenly become an infectious diseases expert — and I will take my stance to the grave: People’s disabilities do not exist for college students to write petitions in the hopes that their university will allow them to party again. It is not only ableist, but it is also myopic. Isolation and online classes because of the coronavirus are not the only things causing stress and exacerbating mental illness. For instance, it is also depressing to have incompetent political parties, wretched working conditions and dying family members and friends.

Although it came from students, the petition merely highlights one facet of ableist thinking at USC. Perhaps it is a mere byproduct of the administration’s disheartening trend of enabling entitled ideology. According to an email obtained by the Daily Trojan on Jan. 4, Campus Support & Intervention under the Office of Student Accessibility Services encouraged students requesting hybrid or online course options to take a leave of absence. 

In other words, students who do not feel comfortable returning to class for in-person instruction — including immunocompromised students and others with disabilities — must choose between risking their health to take classes in person or pausing their studies. By not allowing disabled students the same opportunity as other students and appropriate accommodations, USC promotes all-too-familiar rhetoric that condones eugenics. 

Eugenics is the unethical and denounced scientific study that seeks to establish selective breeding to reproduce “suitable” races and eradicate “undesirable” traits. In fact, former USC President Rufus von KleinSmid supported eugenics — hence, it only took the University more than 50 years to remove his name from a building.

During the pandemic, eugenicist thinking surfaced among opponents of coronavirus safety regulations. Instead of masking up, they said, “Less than 1% of us will die from it, so what?” Instead of isolating, they contemplated, “Perhaps this is God’s way of weeding out the weakest of the bunch.” Pop culture continues to gloss over the word “eugenics” whenever another politician takes a staunch stand against masking up during Congress, but we must call it as it is: Refusing to protect the most vulnerable people in your community not only makes you a self-centered coronavirus denier but also a proponent of eugenics. 

By not appropriately accommodating students during a pandemic, USC follows this same thought process. Disabled students should not have to sacrifice their education for their safety. We deserve the same opportunities as students without disabilities, and the University’s inaction speaks volumes about its lack of regard for its populations most vulnerable to the pandemic. 

USC is not alone, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also not shied away from projecting eugenicist philosophy. In a Good Morning America interview earlier this month, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky remarked that recent data shows 75% of coronavirus-related deaths happen in people who have at least four other comorbidities, which is “really encouraging news.” 

The CDC’s list of comorbidities includes cancer, diabetes, HIV, obesity and mental health conditions such as depression and schizophrenia. Following the backlash, which included an open letter from the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Dr. Walensky tweeted in support of people with disabilities. However, her interview rhetoric still devalues disabled people’s lives as disposable and insignificant. 

As someone with a mood disorder and whom the CDC also considers at high-risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, I implore our institutions — the CDC, USC and beyond — to understand not only the damage their language causes but also the damage their inaction perpetuates. By not providing support for disabled students beyond a leave of absence recommendation, what kind of inclusivity standard is USC establishing? 

Does USC only seek to support able-bodied students, or does it equivocally support all of us? Will it condone its culture of ableism, or will USC seek to stop it by actually increasing disabled student visibility and access to resources? Will USC allow its students to risk their lives for an education — or will it set a precedent against its past and culture, once and for all? 

Matthew Eck is a senior writing about hot-button social issues in his column “The Eck’s Factor.” He is also the Wellness & Community Outreach Director at the Daily Trojan.