Republicans who once decried the Affordable Care Act as a harbinger of “death panels” are now toying with cutting out the middleman and sentencing the country’s oldest to death without bothering with any panels at all. Yes, the same Republicans who once soberly asserted things like “there is a provision in [Obamacare] that anyone over the age of 74 has to go before what is effectively a death panel” are now cheerfully suggesting that a few dead elderly people would be a small price to pay to protect the U.S. economy in the coming weeks.
The poster boy of such stupidity is currently Dan Patrick, Texas’ Republican lieutenant governor, who told Tucker Carlson on Monday night that he and America’s other grandparents would be willing to risk their own lives if it meant America getting “back to work” before the pandemic was contained adequately. “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country,” Patrick intoned, heroically. Balking at “stay-at-home” and shelter-in-place directives, Patrick insisted that he was willing to personally die so the U.S. economy could thrive for his grandchildren: “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren?’ And if that is the exchange, I’m all in.” He concluded with possibly the stupidest line of the evening: “As the president said, the mortality rate is so low. Do we have to shut down the country?”
Patrick is of course wrong about virtually everything in this statement. He seems incapable of understanding that we can’t conclude anything about the virus without widespread testing, which remains unavailable. The U.S. numbers we do have certainly indicate that it’s not just the elderly who fall ill and die from the coronavirus—Americans between the ages of 20 and 54 represent almost 40 percent of the people who have been hospitalized in this country. They are taking beds, ventilators, and other resources away from young people in Porsche accidents just as much as the elderly are. Doctors and nurses, working with inadequate protective gear, are also becoming infected while treating patients, which means that someday Patrick’s capitalism-loving grandchildren won’t have any physicians when they injure themselves counting their stacks of money. And unless Patrick is saying that he and his other 70-year-old human sacrifices all plan to die painfully alone at home, they would all still be in hospitals infecting other budding young capitalists on their slow honorable death march to that great big stock exchange in the sky.
While it’s easy to lampoon Patrick and others who insist that widespread death and suffering is a small price to pay for the myriad glories of, well, something-glorious-to-be-named-later, it bespeaks a few rather terrifying trends of thought that need to be nipped in the bud, stat. The first is the reckless “othering” of people, be it Asian Americans, or older Americans, or immigrants and asylum-seekers. The virus is many things, but it won’t discriminate, and it shouldn’t be weaponized to license discrimination. It’s true that people older than 70 are more likely to die from this virus and that people older than 80 are terrifyingly likely to die from it. This doesn’t mean we give up on them. Our parents and grandparents aren’t the punchline in some Swiftian joke. They aren’t negotiable; they are people whose unique vulnerability ought to mandate more robust protection, not less. This isn’t something we should make deals over. Also, eugenics-based arguments about which cohorts of Americans are expendable are doubly suspect from those who have wrapped themselves in the mantle of “life.” (Patrick was, recall, the guy who famously claimed that abortion causes school shootings.)
But the even deeper problem, beyond the catastrophic failure to understand epidemiology, is the increasingly lethal conviction on the part of at least some Americans that—all medical evidence to the contrary—this is a pandemic that will somehow spare the lucky folk. And that Americans are by definition just too darn lucky to become ill. That was part of the wrongheaded thinking that allowed Donald Trump only a week ago to assure Americans that they needed to “just relax” because “it all will pass.” It’s also part of the wrongheaded thinking that allowed Liberty University to reopen its doors after spring break, with president Jerry Falwell Jr. insisting that young people cannot catch or spread the virus: “I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” he contends. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk, and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.” Maybe Falwell doesn’t understand that his students are all precisely the age to spread the virus and put others at risk. Maybe he can’t be bothered to realize that this will overwhelm small regional hospitals and sicken medical personnel.
Perhaps Falwell believes that Liberty students are not merely immune and super-duper lucky but also on some kind of Godly VIP list. That seems to be the view of the Hobby Lobby empire as well, which carries with it the added implication that maybe Italians just didn’t pray hard enough about the coronavirus, perhaps the most vile suggestion of them all.
The problem with Trump and Patrick and Falwell and all those who continue to believe that young Americans or Christian Americans or Americans in red states are somehow not susceptible to the same risks as the rest of us isn’t just that it continues the sordid trend of pitting people against others that has been so politically disastrous for the nation. It also stands as a substitute for actually doing the many, many things that need doing right now, things that needed doing weeks ago, when they could have saved more lives.
Donald Trump has staked his whole political reputation on trying to solve immigration problems by blaming immigrants, political problems by blaming Democrats, science problems by blaming scientists, and basic factual problems by blaming journalists. Anyone who rejected such framing was disloyal and un-American and accused of “tearing us apart.” But a pandemic that can be at least blunted by action will not be touched by carving up the nation into the godly and the godless, the young and the old, Republican and Democrat, workers and those whom the economy can stand to put out to pasture. Any solution that depends on working those fault lines will not just fail to stem the oncoming crisis. It will also handily create new classes of unnecessary victims.