No matter a coronavirus pandemic, the elderly are not expendable

In spite of frustration with restrictions, fears about medical shortages and the desire to revive the economy, nothing can justify treating the lives of older persons as not worth saving.

A senior citizen in Israel wearing a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus, March 2020. Credit: Photo by Jordan Hay/IFCJ.
A senior citizen in Israel wearing a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus, March 2020. Credit: Photo by Jordan Hay/IFCJ.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly spreading across the globe with frightening speed. Governments are increasingly adopting plans that restrict citizens to their homes, as in Israel, which is now on total lockdown, in an attempt to prevent the infection rate from spiking to the point where medical facilities will be overwhelmed.

But even as the new normal has become more accepted, the pushback against the notion that shutting down our regular lives and the economy is worth the cost continues.

Coronavirus scofflaws come from a variety of backgrounds. It was that same spirit of stubborn resistance against reality that drove both pleasure-seeking American kids to Florida beaches for spring break and some ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students to attend their classes or weddings in recent weeks despite the clear danger such activities posed to themselves and others, especially those most vulnerable to the virus.

A more insidious threat comes from those proposing that we lift the restrictions for the sake of the economy or suggest that the elderly ought to consent to be sacrificed for the convenience of those who are younger.

One particularly egregious example of this came from Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In an interview on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News, Patrick argued that senior citizens ought to acquiesce to being endangered by a quick resumption of normal life for the good of the country, rather than let their grandchildren suffer through another Great Depression.

“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me. … No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Patrick has taken a deserved drubbing for suggesting that senior citizens ought to trade their survival for the sake of their descendant’s prosperity. But he’s far from the only one to make such utilitarian arguments.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a Jewish bioethicist and the brother of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of the key figures behind the adoption of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He’s now also the most prominent member of a committee formed to advise former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic Party presidential nominee, about the coronavirus crisis.

That is significant because Emanuel has been a prominent advocate not merely of rationing, but of more general utilitarian attitudes about health care for the elderly. In 2014, the then 57-year-old bioethicist wrote in The Atlantic about how he only wished to live to the age of 75, which he saw as the optimal life span for Americans. While not explicitly advocating eugenics or denying care to the elderly, Emanuel argued that people are living too long and becoming burdens not only to themselves, but to their children and society.

Chillingly, in light of today’s crisis, he recommended that those over 75 should not have flu shots, especially in the event of a pandemic where shortages might occur. He quoted approvingly a classic medical text that spoke of pneumonia as “the friend of the aged” since it allows the elderly to escape distressing years of “decay.”

That such attitudes may be informing the 77-year-old Biden about health care is alarming, as well as ironic. But at a time when Italian hospitals have already been advised by leading medical authorities in that country to adopt wartime triage procedures when it comes to deciding which coronavirus victims will get life-saving treatment, including the use of increasingly scarce respirators, such attitudes ought to scare Americans as similar problems start to arise here.

Republicans argued against Obamacare in part because of the prospect of “death panels” deciding who should be given life-saving treatment. Yet as the coronavirus crisis worsens, arguments framed very much along the same lines as those articulated by Emanuel will win out on Trump’s watch in the absence of an opposing and coherent bioethical vision.

The coronavirus task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence lacks a prominent bioethical voice who might advise the president about the ethical choices involved in prematurely ending quarantine policies. Indeed, Trump is the first president in decades not to appoint a body to advise him on bioethical issues.

Not all of the victims of the virus are over 65, but they remain the most at risk, along with anyone who has a pre-existing health condition (another form of eugenics). In Italy, 85.6 percent of those who have died from the illness have been past the age of 70, lending weight to the suspicion that authorities there are devoting scarce respirators to younger patients and have decided to let the elderly die.

Our values— and, in particular, those teachings handed down by Jewish tradition and faith—require us to take actions to prevent the elderly from being sacrificed, even if that impose hardships on the rest of the society. Even a cursory study of Jewish texts—starting with the Ten Commandments and all the way through Talmudic teachings and the writings of modern Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—mandate that every possible effort should be expended to promote policies that will seek to avoid such dilemmas.

There’s also the fact that some of those dying now from the virus are Holocaust survivors. Israel’s first fatality during the pandemic was 88-year-old Aryeh Even, a survivor who went on to work in Israel’s foreign ministry. Another was 92-year-old Rabbi Avraham “Romi” Cohn, a partisan fighter who went on to be a mohel in New York City and gave the opening prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz earlier this year.

It’s not irrational to ask if the cost of the cure is as bad as the disease. But do we really think the lives of such people are not worthy of preservation? Are we so lacking in a moral compass that we would claim that money, even the good of the national economy, is of greater value than the patriarchs and matriarchs of our families.

To his credit, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu framed the issue about taking urgent action to combat the spread of the virus, he spoke of its primary victims as grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers and mothers, rather than merely those over 65. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has similarly touched many hearts in explaining the problem by referring to the need to protect his own widowed mother.

Treating the lives of older citizens as a precious and loved resource, rather than a group who has lived too long to be of any use, is an imperative for an ethical society that is faced with difficult health-care policy questions. That is true for the State of Israel, which is avowedly informed by Jewish faith, teachings and ethics. But it is just as vital for all Americans to reaffirm that these are our values, too.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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