As coronavirus bans begin lifting, no one is expendable
It took me 20 years to acknowledge that I was middle-aged, and by then it was time to join AARP. But at 67, I am accepting the label of distinction that puts me at greater risk to contract COVID-19. I am a senior.
I own that designation so that you understand I have skin in the decision around when social distancing and quarantine restrictions should be lifted. My wife and I are healthy and comfortable and under surveillance by our adult children. They want us to live, and we concur.
That’s why I listen critically when people — mostly younger and mostly not with a background in the physical sciences — consider my life an acceptable risk in the road back to the status quo ante.
There is indeed a laboratory for the approach of building general immunity. It is Sweden, where healthy people go about their business as they choose. The infection and death rates are higher than among their neighbors, but their health ministry is convinced that, in the long run, the population will develop a necessary resistance to the virus. Older people and those with compromised immune systems are strongly encouraged to remain sequestered. Therein is an important caveat.
The highest profile public figure in this country to suggest a return to “normal” is a contemporary of mine, the lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick. From almost the beginning, he has insisted old people, including himself, are willing to die in the name of avoiding hardship for their children and grandchildren. Perhaps because I do not live in Texas, Patrick did not consult me or any of the grandparents among my acquaintances. Using the same polling methods he did, I feel confident in proclaiming him wrong.
The advocates for ending the restrictions argue that the government has no authority to restrict what they choose to do to their own bodies. They too are wrong, as any pharmacist or vehicle operator with a DUI conviction will testify.
When one’s health or the health and safety of others is at risk, the government has not only the right but the obligation to step in. As the old legal saw goes, your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins. The same goes for your “right” to spread the coronavirus.
But is a thinning of the herd from the drain on society’s resources a reasonable stance to take? I mean, we are all going to die of something, right?
I am struck by the metaphor — thinning the herd — as if some Darwinian ideal ought to supersede the societies of human beings who have discovered morals and meanings that allow us to rise above the indifference of nature’s brutality. We are not Texas longhorns or feral hogs, left for dead or the shoe factory if we can’t keep up. Quite the opposite.
The qualities that make us human are often quite irrelevant to physical survival — music, art, poetry, philosophy, faith, altruism, ceremony and ... wait, I know there’s one more. Oh yeah. Love.
I remember encountering an essay by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the subject of old age. It was delivered at the White House Conference on Aging in 1961. Rabbi Heschel was middle-aged when he delivered it. I was 9 at the time, but I read it when I was a teenager. This is what he said:
The resources of a society mean nothing if those who cannot or could never contribute to the material wealth of that society are considered expendable. The decision to risk sacrificing them on the altar of economic prosperity is a violation of what it means to be human. History has made that clear by the disdain with which the herd thinners — the tyrants and dictators, the enslavers, the selection-makers, the robber barons — are held.
The physical infection by the coronavirus is not the only challenge in these times. It has also contaminated a segment of our populace with the notion that the weak, the disabled, the underinsured, and the old folks like me are expendable.
There is no drug, ventilator or disinfectant that can cure that sickness. But I do commit myself to working on a preventative for as long as I am privileged to live.