Ageism and The Virus: some triage guidelines "like eruptions of pus in the body politic"

I’m calling this one Ageism and The Virus.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced all of us to the concept of flattening the curve. We stay at home to help stop the spread of COVID19, helping preserve critical care resources so rationing won’t mean the virus that mostly kills old people kills old people who might have survived if age was factored out of triage calculus.

We are far from flattening the virus curve on ageism.

Early on, when the messaging from China and Italy was that this disease mostly kills old people, the poisonous hashtag boomer remover cropped up on social media. We shuddered at a UK columnist’s casual reference to a potential upside: the cull of the elderly who are economically dependent. We heard the lieutenant-governor of Texas urging the old to sacrifice themselves to minimise economic damage, to take one for the team.

And only now has the UK government been hammered into paying attention to the reality it ignored – the virus is ripping through residential care homes it left to fend for themselves. The UK’s social care sector has long been Cinderella to the National Health Service (NHS), deprived and in chronic crisis.

Is care being denied higher-risk old people even before pandemic peaks overwhelm resources?

Even more so than usual, are old people being treated as expendable?

Questions I put to Margaret Morganroth Gullette, prolific author, scholar, influential culture critic, expert in age and ageism and, I’m honoured to say, a friend of this podcast.

She says decades of government neglect, deep-rooted inequality and ingrained age bias have set us up for avoidable deaths of the old and the poor that will amount to “crimes against humanity”.

She worries that her seminal message that we are “aged by culture” is being lost in a resurgence of the ageist decline narrative of later life. It will be a struggle, she says, to silence the pandemic narrative that old people are expendable in a crisis.

“Ethical triage even in crisis care should focus on the individual’s medical condition, not the sociological category.”

“Bias in triage decisions is a worldwide danger to the vulnerable.”


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