The front page of the New York Times on Sunday, May 24 presented what felt like an endless list of those in the United States who have died as a result of contracting COVID-19. The names of 1,000 people, with a one-line summary of a unique aspect of their life, filled the entire page and continued inside the news section
This compilation is 1 percent of the total number of those who have succumbed to COVID-19 in this country since February, and a small fraction of the deaths around the world. The majority of those who have died have been over the age of 60.
It is worth stepping back to contemplate the impact of this virus on the older population. Historically, mass death events have not targeted the aged. The pandemic of 1918 struck younger individuals, who epidemiologists feel had not developed an immunity to the flu virus. Soldiers who die in battle are overwhelmingly young, and famine hits the most vulnerable regardless of age.
But in today’s world, older people make up a higher percentage of the population than ever before. A story we don’t tell often enough is the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the second half of the 20th century. Advances in nutrition, medications, and access to health care enable older people to live active, healthy, productive lives.
In the United States, Medicare is a significant reason for this, as it enables individuals over the age of 65 to get medical care. Many elected officials, not to mention physicians, fought the establishment of Medicare (and there are some who continue to plot ways to undermine and exploit it for profit), but we now rely upon it as the universal health care system for older Americans.
Medicare has prevented many older individuals from dying at a younger age. But Medicare can’t stop a pandemic. COVID-19 has brought an early and unexpected death for tens of thousands of older Americans.
Early in this crisis, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick argued against shutting the economy down to help stop the spread of the virus and stated, “those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves.” He later doubled down on those comments, asserting, “there are more important things than living.”
Patrick’s comments brought to mind the 1970’s science fiction movie “Logan’s Run.” The premise of the film was that humanity had evolved to a point where society was idyllic and happy – and everyone was forced to end their life at the age of 30 in a bizarre ceremony. The plot concerned a group who defied this mandate and their efforts to evade their assigned fate.
Patrick appears to be making an argument for a similar type of world. He’s not advocating the outright murder of older people, but he certainly is putting a higher value on those who in his view make the economic engine run.
I believe most Americans reject this type of thinking, but there appears to be a significant proportion of the population who do not. And as our population ages, the viewpoint of Dan Patrick and others like him could become more mainstream. After years of medical advances and enactment of programs to extend our lifespan, there is a realization of how this changes society and there are those who object to these changes.
We cannot simply ignore the voices of those like Dan Patrick. Like many of those who defy the recommendations of health experts on COVID-19, they feel immune to the impacts of the virus because of their position of privilege, and their true motivation is money and power.
But in their call for a quick re-opening of the economy and their willingness to tolerate the deaths of older Americans, they are laying the groundwork for their next fight, against Medicare and other general welfare programs that help older and poorer Americans.
Those of us who value the memory of every name listed in the New York Times, as well as the 99,000 who weren’t mentioned, have to be prepared for the battle to protect these programs. “Logan’s Run” was an extreme fictional version of the future – but all fiction has a basis in reality. And the premise of a film which dismisses the value of the lives of older people is just a little too real right now.
Opinion contributor Ray Landis writes about the issues that concern older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Follow him on Twitter @RELandis.