We, all of us, are witness to something that up until now seemed an historical event safely tucked away in the Middle Ages or, at least, a hundred years ago.
No more than two months ago, few if any of us could have guessed we would see so many succumb to the coronavirus in so short a period of time that morgues and funeral homes would need to store the dead in refrigerated trucks.
Even in our largest cities, there is silence in the streets. We who can lock ourselves in our homes rarely leave nowadays and never get closer than six feet to another person.
Front-line workers take their lives in their hands to care for the sick and dying. Others perform essential services for the rest of us. Both do so while living as separate as possible from their families for fear of passing the virus to loved ones.
It is fear that drives us now. We live in a state of suspended animation with no end date. Does anyone here believe that the numerous U.S. states “opening” their economies now will result in anything but spikes in infections and deaths?
Old people account for more of the dead than any other age group.
On Saturday, The New York Times reported that one-third of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities:
”At least 25,600 residents and workers have died from the coronavirus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults in the United States, according to a New York Times database. The virus so far has infected more than 143,000 at some 7,500 facilities.”
The Washington Post reports that the number of elder deaths from the virus may be even higher:
”It’s become clear that nursing homes are particularly deadly incubators: Fifteen states reported (as of Friday) that more than half of their covid-19 fatalities were associated with long-term-care facilities.
“Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says that as many as 50 percent of all deaths in Europe have occurred in such places.”
There has been more than a little ageism in the discussion of who lives and who dies in this pandemic. In March,
”Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick set off a firestorm of criticism after he suggested Monday that he and other older Americans should be willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the economy, which he said was in mortal jeopardy because of shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic,” reported the Washington Post.
“'Let’s get back to living,' Patrick (R) said. 'Let’s be smart about it. And those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.'”
Just over a week ago, Ken Turnage II was ousted as chairman of Antioch, California's city council when he posted this to Facebook:
”'In my opinion we need to adapt a Herd Mentality. A herd gathers it ranks, it allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature," reported NBC News.
“As for homeless people, he added that the virus would 'fix what is a significant burden on our society and resources that can be used.'”
Those two are not alone. Calls for sacrifice of elders and the disabled has become relatively commonplace in relation to the pandemic but reporter Nina A. Kohn, in that same Washington Post story wrote a strong counter-narrative on Friday.
Acknowledging that old people are particularly susceptible to the virus, she points out a long-standing inequality that contributes to the large number of elder deaths:
”They’re also dying because of a more entrenched epidemic: the devaluation of older lives.
“Ageism is evident in how we talk about victims from different generations, in the shameful conditions in many nursing homes and even — explicitly — in the formulas some states and health-care systems have developed for determining which desperately ill people get care if there’s a shortage of medical resources.”
Pointing out specifics about how nursing homes are woefully understaffed and under-regulated, while childcare centers that violate state rules routinely have their licenses revoked and facilities closed, Kohn reports,
”Almost two-thirds of the approximately 15,600 nursing homes in the United States have been cited for violating rules on preventing infections since 2017, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of state inspection results.”
When fines are imposed, Kohn writes, they are low enough to be considered the price of doing business. Further, says Kohn,
”Ageism is most explicit in official policies governing whose lives should be saved if equipment or medical staff become scarce during the pandemic...states and health-care systems have plans for such situations.
“All prioritize patients who are likely to benefit from treatment over those who are unlikely to benefit, but many also rate them based on age — with younger patients getting the nod.
“Louisiana, for example, has long advised hospitals to employ a triage system for disasters that deprioritizes anyone age 65 or older. In April, Pennsylvania issued interim guidance that directs hospitals to rank patients based on broad 'life stages': age 12 to 40, age 41 to 60, age 61 to 75, older than 75.”
Ms. Kohn concludes and I agree:
”Inequalities rooted in ageism have caused the coronavirus to spread, and many policy responses take for granted that older lives are worth less than younger ones. These moral blind spots compromise the fight against the pandemic and diminish us all.”
Which brings us back to today's headline: Are Old People's Lives Worth Less Than Young People's Lives? What do you think?
This is an important story rarely so well and thoughtfully reported as Nina A. Kohn has done. You can read it in full at the Washington Post.