Home > Uncategorized > Ageism, Unworthy Life, and the Pandemic – posted 5/25/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/1/2020

Ageism, Unworthy Life, and the Pandemic – posted 5/25/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/1/2020

As I write, the United States approaches the catastrophic number of 100,000 coronavirus deaths. Every one of those deaths was a person with a life story, family and friends. The level of tragedy is epic. So many lives snuffed out so quickly.

Yet President Trump says we have prevailed over the virus. This is undoubtedly his George W. Bush Mission Accomplished moment.

80% of the deaths were people over age 65, with many concentrated in nursing homes. Among the failings of the government response, I think we need to look at why so many in nursing homes have died. Our response seems weak and compromised by fatalism. Among the questions that need to be asked: did it have to be that way? Could we have better protected this population?

I am struck by the too-casual acceptance of these deaths, almost like the elderly are expendable. The cheerleaders in a rush to re-open the economy are ready for sacrifice – of others, especially older workers, minorities and the poor. The only thing that appears to matter to President Trump is his re-election which, in his estimation, demands reopening the economy at any price.

I think it is fair to say our leaders in the Trump Administration have a poor handle on what to expect next from the pandemic. Increasingly, the dominant perspective turns science and public health into an inconvenience. However, at this point, further disasters may be a more plausible scenario than any rapid recovery. Will there be a second wave? Nobody knows.

Who can forget Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick saying that there are more important things than living as a justification for re-opening the economy quickly. Really? There are more important things than living? I think I want a list.

Patrick, age 70, suggested he and other grandparents would be willing to risk their health and their lives to get the U.S. back to work. Is this a sacrifice for Wall Street?

Other right wingers like Glenn Beck seconded Patrick. On March 25, Beck said:

“I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep the economy going and working even if we all get sick. I’d rather die than kill the economy.”

Some younger folks on social media have joked about the pandemic as “boomer remover”. A journalist for the British newspaper the Telegraph suggested that the coronavirus could benefit the economy by disproportionately “culling” elderly people.

The lack of empathy demonstrated is impressive. What does it say about our society that some can think about older people so dismissively? I can appreciate anger and resentment that boomers have botched climate change and have promoted a grossly unequal economy screwing the young but this sentiment that older people should sacrifice themselves for that abstraction, the economy, is bizarre.

These attitudes are rooted in ageism and the devaluation of the lives of older people. Capitalism increasingly treats workers over age 50 as dead wood, to be scrap-piled. Even before the pandemic, getting a competitive job if you are over 50 was not easy, even for those highly competent with great resumes. The pandemic will make it even worse. Age discrimination is likely the ongoing normal.

Ageism became quite blatant in policies around whose lives should be saved if equipment or medical supplies became scarce. Who gets the ventilator or rationed life-saving equipment? Age-based triaging appears to be very much a part of the medical world although its legal and ethical underpinnings remain cloudy. There is some valuation of youth over age going on. How and why our public health system was so ill-prepared that we got to triaging remains an outstanding question.

I think readers might be surprised to learn the intellectual origins of the idea that some life is more valuable than other life. The idea did not come from nowhere. It is rooted in Nazi ideology, in the idea of “life unworthy of life”.

The German Nazis made distinctions about what segments of the population had no right to live. They targeted people with serious medical problems and those considered grossly inferior by their racial policies.

Among those deemed “unworthy life” were those who were incurably ill, large segments of the mentally ill, the feeble-minded and retarded and deformed children. The Nazis drew from the work of two German professors Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche who saw destroying “life unworthy of life” as a healthy, compassionate treatment. It was about protecting the integrity of the Volk, the collective. Categories of people were seen as “human ballast” or “useless eaters”.

Promoting the idea that the loss of thousands of older people (and many more to come) is an acceptable cost for re-opening the economy is morally debased. All lives are equally valuable and as should be obvious, following in a direction pioneered by Nazis would be a form of ageist exterminism. We all deserve a chance to live life to the fullest for as long as we can. I would not hesitate in saying I would like to see my grandchild grow up.

Reopening the economy is admittedly tricky but President Trump is now indulging in both minimizing and denying the extreme harm we have all witnessed. 100,000 deaths is nothing to be proud about.

The final disrespect to all the elderly folks who have died is that the Trump Administration has refused to authorize FEMA funds to help families cover the cost of burials. FEMA has helped pay for the burials of victims of past disasters like in Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Over 30 states have requested the funding but to no avail.

Older people deserve better. We are all in this together and public health must protect everybody and try to minimize all casualties, elderly included. That must remain a top priority goal indefinitely.

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