The messages have been constant over the past decade about the upcoming impact of an aging population. Elected officials have heard warnings that the United States was not ready to address the needs of this growing segment of society.
In 2020 the first test of whether we had heeded the messages came in the form of a deadly pandemic which focused its most severe consequences on the elderly.
The scramble to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 and develop and distribute a vaccine is still incomplete, but there’s little doubt what the final grade will be when history delivers the report card – we have failed.
We share in that failure in Pennsylvania, but we are not alone. Most states have done a poor job of handling this crisis. The federal government, under the non-leadership of the ex-president, has been worse – despite some voices of reason like Dr. Fauci and the push to develop a vaccine they deserve an F-minus for overall ignorance and incompetence.
There was no perfect solution which would have prevented any loss of life from this pandemic of course. COVID-19 struck swiftly and spread rapidly.
But its impact was exacerbated by the structure of the systems we have in place to support our older population, and the rebound from the ravishes of the virus will be delayed by our approach to how to help protect those who continue to be most in danger.
The onset of the pandemic in the United States occurred in nursing homes, and its rapid spread demonstrated not only how unprepared these facilities were for such an event but also how this entire model of care undermined attempts to control the spread of the virus.
For-profit corporations which place the compensation of their executives and the returns to their stockholders ahead of the welfare of their staff and residents were no match for COVID-19, but even many well-meaning facilities were devastated.
But the failure of our response did not only impact residents of long-term care facilities. The criminal discarding of the Obama administration’s planning for the outbreak of a pandemic placed all Americans at risk.
Former President Donald Trump and his enablers dismissed the seriousness of the situation and obedient political followers and propaganda outlets followed their lead. Such an approach proved to be dangerous, and often fatal, for too many older Americans.
The history of how a distrust of factual information has been fostered over the past 50 years explains how we arrived at this predicament.
Too many Americans have fallen victim to the manipulators of facts and truth and chosen leaders who promote propaganda. The end result is a society where tens of millions no longer trust science and believe the exaggerations and falsehoods of those seeking the power to enrich themselves and their financial backers.
It produced a situation where outright defiance of wearing masks and avoiding large social gatherings resulted in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of older Americans – some of whom, it must be said, had fallen under the spell of false prophets and denied the seriousness of COVID-19 until their last breaths.
But the failures of 2020 are not an explanation for additional mistakes now occurring as we try to distribute vaccines.
Once again, we have not accounted for the reality of our growing elderly population. As governments worked to cut costs over the last decade, federal and state officials reduced employment and relied more and more on technology.
Many older people, particularly those with fewer financial resources, are not adept with searching for vaccine availability on-line or using text messages to receive appointment reminders.
But utilizing real people to assist older citizens costs money in salaries and benefits. And Americans, through their elected leaders, have rejected funding this real person assistance. This means wealthy older Americans with the knowledge and connections to work within an online system will be able to get a vaccine first, while those with few resources, fewer sources of assistance, and more exposure to the virus, will be at the back of the line.
The end result is more older Americans will die of COVID-19 over the next few months than should, adding to the already mind-numbing total. The fear going forward is we will ignore the lessons we should learn from the pandemic and stumble into the next situation that threatens this vulnerable segment of our population.
We must anticipate another future crisis like a pandemic which targets our older population. But all the preparation in the world will be for naught if we do not develop the will to provide the resources to address such a situation. Leadership in a time of crisis is doing what is necessary, even if it is not popular. Older Pennsylvanians are desperate for more leaders.
Opinion contributor 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.