By Stacy Gallin
As we commemorate Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – on Tuesday, I keep thinking about the Hebrew phrase, L’dor V’dor. In English, this phrase means “from generation to generation.”
It refers to the essential task in Judaism of passing down traditions and education from one generation to another. It is how we honor our ancestors – by telling their stories to our children and encouraging them to tell their children. It is particularly important as a mechanism for preserving the memory of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust and making sure the world never forgets. Remember the past; protect the future.
The essential act of transmitting information from older generations to younger ones is something that seems antithetical in the age of COVID-19, where we have been told time and time again that intergenerational transmission is to be feared and avoided at all costs.
Yet, as someone who has dedicated my academic career to human dignity, health, and the Holocaust, I feel as though I am part of the “sandwich generation.”
I have a responsibility to my ancestors who were persecuted and killed for being Jewish to tell their stories, to pass down their traditions, and to educate and empower the next generation to become active agents of social change who will fight for freedom, tolerance and justice for all people. It is my duty to speak for the generation that was silenced before me and to help the next generation find their voice.
As COVID-19 has grown into a global pandemic, I have seen divisions arise in society that are deeply concerning. I have remained silent for fear of disrespecting the enormity of the Holocaust by erroneously comparing our current situation to what took place during World War II.
However, to not acknowledge the shift in basic ethical principles being proposed at varying levels within health care, politics, public policy, the media, and the general public would be a mistake.
We must learn from history, lest we repeat it. Sometimes that means exploring our darkest times and realizing that we are not so different from those that came before us. In his book, “Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis,” Robert Proctor wrote, “In times of war or economic crisis things can happen that otherwise – in times of peace or economic stability – would never be tolerated.”
While COVID-19 cannot and should not be classified as a war, the effects felt across the world most certainly account for allowances that would not be made under normal circumstances.
The National Socialist Party was able to use times of war as an excuse to shift the traditional medical paradigm in which the doctor cares primarily for his or her patient to one in which the goal of health care was to strengthen the nation at the expense of the individual.
This transformation of the medical ethos led to, among other things, a health care system that ministered to the strong instead of caring for the sick or vulnerable. A hierarchy of human life resulted in which people were labeled, persecuted, and eventually murdered based on their perceived “fitness” and worth to society.
Over the past few months, we have been inundated with conversations about allocation of scarce resources and who should be favored if there are not enough life-sustaining supplies for everyone.
Age has been suggested as an exclusionary criterion, providing a subtle message about the way in which society devalues the elderly population. The concept of instrumental value to society – giving front line health care workers priority – has been a consideration as well, which literally creates a hierarchy of worth to society based on profession.
The Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had to issue a bulletin after two states were found to have intellectual disabilities among the criteria for allocation of resources. In a health care system already plagued by inherent, systemic racism, co-morbidities such as diabetes and heart disease, whose outcomes are directly affected by equity and access to care have also been proposed as determining factors for ethical guidelines.
These recommendations are meant to provide help and guidance in an unprecedented crisis. While the motivations are certainly not the same as they were in Nazi Germany, nonetheless the idea of a hierarchy of human life remains troubling, as does the idea that health care providers are again being tasked with prioritizing the good of the many over the good of the individual.
As we commemorate Yom Hashoah, we remember what can happen when political or social constructs are used to discriminate and divide us.
Understanding the ways in which basic ethical principles were distorted by outside forces can help us recognize when history is repeating itself. We must rise above the desire to adopt a system of catastrophe ethics that would otherwise be unacceptable and remember our universal truths. We must look to our friends and colleagues in other countries who are facing the same challenges and realize that COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race, religion, or culture.
The responsibility of remembering our shared past, experiencing our shared present and protecting our shared future belongs to all of us because we are all members of humankind. One day, when we tell our grandchildren about this unprecedented time in history, we want to pass down a story of unity, not division: L’dor V’dor.
Stacy Gallin is the director of the Center for Human Dignity in Bioethics, Health, and the Holocaust at Misericordia University in Dallas, Luzerne County, Pa. She is also the founding director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust.
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