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“Going to Die Anyway”: COVID-19 Deaths of the Elderly are No Laughing Matter

There are, of course, competing viewpoints about how states should end the coronavirus lockdowns, with some urging greater caution while others think it’s time to get the economy and life open again, and fast. Given the uncertainties, such disagreements are hardly unexpected, and in some ways reveal both the strength and the risks of living in an open and democratic society.

It is increasingly clear, however, that COVID-19 poses a much greater threat [1] to the elderly [2] than to the young, especially given the comorbidities already faced by many older people [3], such as heart disease. In some states, as it turns out, it’s not just the elderly but specifically those in or elder care facilities [4] who make up a significant [5], sometimes overwhelming [6] percentage of those who have died [7] of COVID-19, a grim reality apparently exacerbated by previous decisions [8] to send infected patients to those facilities.

It’s not surprising, then, to find some arguing that the lockdowns were largely unnecessary, or at least that going forward the most reasonable alternative is to open up schools and businesses while maintaining strict quarantines [9] on those most vulnerable [10], including, and perhaps most especially, nursing homes.

Whatever one thinks of such proposals, and they remain debatable, they are not outside the realm of reasonability. Reasonable people of good will can and do disagree about policies, and they are not moral monsters because they disagree. This is part and parcel of living in a democratic society—we debate about prudential policies. Perhaps the proposals are wrong-headed, perhaps not, and we may not know for some time.

More disturbing, however, is a palpable nonchalance demonstrated by some, thankfully few, who seem to think that deaths of the elderly somehow matter less than the deaths of younger people. “They were going to die soon anyway, what does it matter?” some seem [11] to suggest [12]. Others don’t just hint at this attitude but state [13] it clearly and directly [14]: “They were on their last legs anyway.”

Is one human worth less than another because likely to have less time yet to live? Is the death of an elderly person less tragic because they are old? Many of us have experienced the death of a loved one and concluded that “they had a good, long life,” or that “it was time.” And those who have lost a child know there is something profoundly painful in this, that it was “too soon,” for they “had their whole life ahead of them.” We understand these sentiments, realize that there is something more palatable in death at the end of life’s drama than at the beginning. But such acceptance is not the same as the callous attitude demonstrated by those claiming that “they were on their last legs anyway.”

Humans do not get their innate value and dignity because productive or beneficial to others, nor is innate dignity diminished because life could persist for only 200 days rather than 2000. Innate value, after all, is just that—innate, intrinsic—and a such value can neither be increased or decreased, nor does one person have more or less than another. Certainly one person can be more valuable for this or that purpose—the engineer is more valuable when building a bridge than is the poet, although the poet may be more useful when looking for consolation—but innate value doesn’t come and go, grow or diminish. Human worth is simply had by virtue of being a human being, pure and simple.

All too often, people forget that physical life is a fundamental but not an absolute good, for we are not simply bodies, not merely organic robots who are valuable so long as we can act and do and produce, and thus value increases the more or longer we can act and produce. It’s not just having a live body which gives value; instead, the body is part of a whole, part of a unified person, and it is persons who have intrinsic value, in whatever state their body happens to be in. Healthy, beautiful, powerful, young; ill, ravaged, weak, old—it doesn’t matter, for a person is a person whatever the state of their body, or how long their body is likely to last.

Persons are valuable, persons have innate worth, and to suggest that the death of an aged person doesn’t really matter is to be utterly mistaken about humanity.