The COVID-19 pandemic taught us brutal lessons in 2020. Will we heed them in 2021? | Ray E. Landis

(Image via UPMC/Pittsburgh City Paper)

There have been many issues impacting older Americans in 2020, but nothing can come close in seriousness to how COVID-19 has taken and threatened the lives of so many people over the age of 65. Even as the year ends and the initial distribution of vaccines shows hope may be on the horizon, the death toll from the pandemic continues to skyrocket.

COVID-19 has changed the lives of all older Americans, as even contemplating family gatherings becomes a choice between avoiding isolation and potentially spreading a deadly disease. But no specific group has been impacted more than those residing in long-term care facilities. Nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and personal care homes have been hotbeds for the spread of the pandemic, and when COVID-19 infects a location, the results are tragic.

The Jewish Health Care Foundation, headquartered in Pittsburgh, has produced a sobering documentary about COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. Its title, “What COVID-19 Exposed in Long Term Care” reveals how the pandemic has made public a situation our society has tried to keep in the shadows.

It is well worth 20 minutes of your day to watch this video – although afterwards you will likely spend more than 20 minutes thinking about what it shows.

In stark terms the documentary makes the case assigning the blame for the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities solely to those who operate them and work there ignores the fundamental flaws in the system of caring for our vulnerable older population, a point I discussed earlier this year in an op-Ed for the Capital-Star.

There is little doubt the outbreak was handled poorly in some locations, far too many of them understaffed, for-profit facilities.

But with little initial guidance and a lack of assistance from the federal government in the early stages of the pandemic, even well-meaning nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and personal care homes were faced with impossible choices for extremely vulnerable residents.

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Unfortunately, not every choice produced a good outcome. But ignoring the circumstances that resulted in this situation is an attempt by public figures to wash their hands of this tragedy and shift blame for an ongoing crisis. And it exposes another trait all too prevalent in our country.

The callousness of many toward the loss of older lives has revealed a dark nature of society many pretend does not exist. But like other “-isms” which pulse through our population such as racism and sexism, ageism is real.

Those most interested in profits and power simply do not value the lives of older people as much as those who are younger, and have presented the pandemic as a choice between keeping the economy functioning verses taking the necessary precautions to protect the lives of this vulnerable segment of the population.

The idea that we could do both by demanding those who have accumulated vast amounts of wealth over the past few decades return some of their riches to society is laughed at by the powerful.

We are reaching the point where many of the institutions caring for the most vulnerable in society, whether they are young or old, are forced to devote increasing amounts of their time, efforts, and resources to finding the funding necessary to operate instead of actually providing services.

Those in position to pick and choose where their charity goes, without a guarantee it will do the most good for the most people. Too many elected officials promote this system, then focus only on the spending side of any government contribution, ignoring questions about whether the revenue raising side is adequate or fair.

The pandemic has exposed the flaws of such a system. Inadequate care in long-term care facilities, public schools without necessary supplies, and a degrading environment have been hidden behind curtains, ignored by a segment of the media set up to be a tool of the powerful and listened to as the only source of news by far too many people.

But 300,000-plus deaths cannot be ignored so easily — although there are those trying hard to do so.

The question for the future will be whether the people who died of COVID-19, and the families who suffered, will be written off as a tragic consequence of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, or whether their sacrifice can lead to a better system and an acknowledgement from both the powerful and the average citizens of this country that we have a collective responsibility to care for and lift up the most vulnerable.

The 245-year history of the United States shows it is unlikely we will come up with a universally accepted answer to this fundamental query.

Ray E. Landis writes about the issues important to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis