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Out in the Bay: Disabled trans rabbi calls COVID response 'genocide'

by Eric Jansen

Rabbi Elliot Kukla says the federal governments poor response to COVID-19 amounts to genocide against elderly, disabled, and people of color. Photo: Courtesy Rabbi Elliot Kukla
Rabbi Elliot Kukla says the federal governments poor response to COVID-19 amounts to genocide against elderly, disabled, and people of color. Photo: Courtesy Rabbi Elliot Kukla  

As we face the second wave of COVID-19 that health experts warned last spring would hit this fall and winter, disability activist Rabbi Elliot Kukla says systemic racism, economic injustice, and U.S. government inaction amount to genocide against the chronically ill, disabled, elders and people of color.

"I know that's an extremely strong word," Kukla said on this week's Out in the Bay podcast and radio interview. But he said genocide "isn't always active killing. Sometimes it's leaders of a country just refusing to respond. If we look at the rates that disabled and people of color are dying, it feels like a genocide."

Kukla, the first openly transgender rabbi ordained by a mainstream Jewish movement, works at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco providing spiritual care to the ill, dying, and bereaved. As COVID-19 surges and doctors may again need to ration care, he says many elders, chronically ill, and disabled people feel more "disposable" than ever before.

"The earliest messaging said, 'Don't worry, only chronically ill and old people are at risk of dying, so it's really no big deal,' which was very alarming," and exposed "deep ableism" in U.S. society, said Kukla, who has often been confined to home with a chronic debilitating illness. "'Quality of life' is usually weaponized against disabled people."

He detailed on Out in the Bay discrimination embedded in U.S. policy and practices, challenged Americans' notion of "independence," and spoke about lessons to learn from people of color, chronically ill, disabled, and seniors during this time.

A key learning is "the value of staying home," for oneself and others. "Doing nothing is sometimes the most powerful thing you can do," Kukla said, despite many people now craving independence and to get back to what they were doing before.

"That independence was always a myth," Kukla said, "based on driving on roads other people built, eating food other people harvested," and getting haircuts, for example, from "mostly poor Brown and Black people who usually provide those services in order to survive" and who are contracting COVID at the highest rates.

Kukla says while there is no "silver lining" to this pandemic, there may be opportunities for a new, better "normal."

According to data compiled by the Washington Post, U.S. COVID-19 cases are nearing 9.5 million with more than 233,000 deaths as of Wednesday, November 4, and White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx wrote in a government report November 2 that we are "entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic."

Hear more from Rabbi Elliot Kukla on this week's Out in the Bay-Queer Radio from San Francisco. The program re-airs at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, November 7, on KSFP Radio, 102.5 FM in San Francisco only, and is available anytime on Out in the Bay's website.

Eric Jansen is primary host and managing producer of Out in the Bay-Queer Radio from San Francisco. Learn more and listen at https://www.outinthebay.org/

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