Messages of Hope

Is older age an ‘underlying health condition’?

Published / by Sandy

In the lead up to the UN International Day of Older Persons (October 1), this opinion piece by Dr David Berger, an emergency doctor in northern Australia, provides a thoughtful perspective on how ‘older people’ seem to be viewed in a COVID embattled world. Is age an ‘underlying condition’?

(Published 7 September 2021 in the Sydney Morning Herald)

At the daily press conferences in NSW*, deaths are parenthesised by age and “underlying health conditions”. We are being indoctrinated into believing that these deaths are happening not to healthy young people – the economically productive, important, “valuable” members of society – but rather to the old, the weak, the infirm.

The dead wood, in other words, for whom it would be crazy to jeopardise the success of the economy, or even interrupt people’s pleasure-seeking. We would expect them to die soon anyway, COVID or no COVID.

The Scandinavians, living by forest metaphors, categorise these people as “dry tinder”, that fragile underbrush accumulated on the forest floor and ready to combust, waiting only on the inevitable spark. The narrative is compelling in its implied imagery and quasi-Darwinistic simplicity: a powerful battalion marches forward, its muscular forearms and resolute jaws redolent of the factory worker on a 1950s Soviet poster.

Producing, living, loving – these are the people charged with fulfilling the social and biological destiny of mankind. Of course, they can carry the infirm and the old to an extent – they are not heartless, after all – but only to an extent. As soon as the burden starts to impinge too much on the progress of the Great March Forward, it is time to shed sentimentality and with it those unproductive elements that hold “us” back.

The fact is that one in two Australians has at least one chronic condition and more than one in five of us are over sixty, so it is a nifty trick to get us to believe that these people are all somehow “other”. They are not, they are us, and we are all of inestimable value.

It is a further cynical fiction that soon the rest of “us” will be able to circulate like vaccinated super-beings, impervious to the virus as it scythes down the weak, the infirm, the old. The examples of Israel and other highly vaccinated countries, which are reimposing restrictions hand over fist, show this to be blatantly untrue. A letter from the Business Council of Australia with 80 signatories urges “opening up for the sake of the economy”. If we put aside that this is a factually incorrect position, as the best performing economies have uniformly been those that have opted for eliminating COVID, we are still left asking “what exactly is the economy” and “precisely whose benefit is being served here”?

In a way, “the economy” is really code for movement, the continual displacement of people and things for the purposes of creating profit. Restricting movement – the most powerful weapon against any novel pathogen – impedes the efficient creation of profit. By convincing the bulk of the herd that it is only the weaker animals at the edge that will be picked off by predators, the bulk continues on. No matter that this is not true and that it is a swathe of the bulk itself that is eliminated: population growth will soon fix that in a few years. The essential thing is to keep the herd moving.

Several decades of libertarian political philosophy have resulted in the partial destruction of the idea of collective fates and collective action. All that matters is the individual, who is mendaciously instructed they must keep moving and abandon the weak for the sake of “the economy”, a construct whose purpose increasingly appears to be to deliver excessive profit to fewer and fewer oligarchs.

* The daily press conferences in NSW have been abandoned by the NSW Premier since the publication of this article in the SMH.