Are People 65 and Older At Higher Risk?
It has become widely accepted that people aged 65 and older have been collectivly labeled as high risk from the Coronavirus pandemic. It is clear from the data, however, that we should not lump all boomers (aged 55-74) in with people over 80. The disease is far more dangerous for those in the Silent Generation who are over 75 than it is for baby boomers In my state of California, this oldest group comprises 6.6% of the population, but a highly disproportionate 60% of the deaths. Boomers (between 60 and 74 years old) make up about 15% of the population in California and only a somewhat higher 25% of the deaths. In Italy, as another example, a Journal of the American Medical Association article on Covid-19 deaths reports that the rate of death among 60-69 year-olds is 3-4%, only slightly higher than for the general population. The death-rate jumped to 20% for those over 80, and the bulk of those deaths were among the very frail confined to nursing homes.
Biological Age, Not Chronological Age, Determines Risk
Any grouping of people by chronological age produces a terribly skewed picture of who is really most threatened by this disease. It is people’s “biological age,” reflecting the actual physiology of a person and how well that person is functioning, that is most important in determing a person’s true vulnerability. “Of course, you cannot evaluate each and every individual,” says Dr. Daniela Jopp, an associate professor of psychology at the Universite de Lausanne in Switzerland. “But I think it’s very important to keep in mind that, yes, we want to protect people whose risk is higher due to their age, but that it should not have a large impact in the sense that older people could be treated like second-class citizens.”
So, for simplicity’s sake, the widespread discussion of the population’s relative vulnerability to Covid-19 rarely acknowledges that some people of higher chronological age may be less susceptible to the ravages of the disease than a younger, less healthy person. Just today (June 25), the CDC has “broadened its warning about who is at risk of developing severe disease from Covid-19 infection,” to include younger people who are obese or have other health conditions.
OK Boomer–>Boomer Remover
Why does this failure to recognize that there can be healthy old people matter? Quite simply it matters because there exists a definite ageist undercurrent to the nation’s discussion of where to go from here in the battle against Covid. Someometimes the undercurrent has burst through like a crashing wave, suggesting quite explicitly that the way forward in this pandemic is to accept that old, vulnerable people will die, but that younger people should now be encouraged to go back to life as normal to get the economy going again.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (R-TX) shocked many early in the outbreak by saying it was time to get back to work and play. “Those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country.” He couldn’t very well say, “Those of us who have pre-exisiting conditions (regardless of age), we’ll take care of ourselves.” Of course, neither assertion would carry a shred of moral decency, but the clear statement that we should sacrifice the elderly for the rest of us should shake us to the core.
Patrick’s crass contention that old people are a burden to the rest of us and should be sacrificed (and we elders should march willingly to the ICU and the morgue) so that the rest of us can return to offices, bars and beaches is probably a minority position (at least out loud). But his is far from a lonely voice. Right-wing commentator British commentator Toby Young put it in blunt cost-benefit terms when he wrote, “Spending 350 billion pounds [about $435 million] to prolong the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money.”
And then there is the stream of irresponsibile tweets, statements and speeches from President Trump that have repeatedly called for early opening of the economy by Easter (when the onslaught had barely begun), and by now have totally ignored treating the pandemic with careful and responsible action in favor of opening the economy wide to drinking, working, entertaining and golf. Trump’s loyal entourage among the nation’s governors followed meekly along, favoring early opening (and numerous deaths, understood by them to be elderly deaths) over more responsible and life-preserving restrictions.
All of Trump’s tweets call for the same callous bargain–we must open up the economy, knowing that the biologically unhealthy (and to a large extent, also the chronologically old) will get terribly sick and die in huge numbers.
Boomers Take Note
It is true that some, perhaps many, boomers and other older people, have been as irresponsible as the young beach-goers in ignoring the risks of the disease and of the irrefutable need for sensible sheltering and social distancing (wear masks outside!). However, the reactions of the many more responsible elderly to the otherwise popular notion that the economy should be re-opened despite the known risks have been significant and apparent. The population cohort of 65+, largely baby boomers, has started to become aware that the Trump Administration (often supported by public opinion more generally) is willingly playing with their lives in order to get the economy moving again. In March, three-fifths of Americans over 65 supported the federal government’s response to the pandemic (when sheltering and social distancing were at least the nominal objectives). Now that the federal government is identified with national re-opening, a majority disapprove.
Polling reflects the self-realization by us oldsters that Trump and those who boisterously and rancourously call for opening the economy before health officials deem it wise are certainly ignoring the best interests of especially the old, old. Given the widespread acceptance of the thesis that all 65+ are at greater risk, the Trump ilk are most certainly willing to extend the sacrifice to all boomers. The political website FiveThirtyEight reports that, while Trump won voters 65+ by 13.3 points in 2016, he now trails Biden with the group.
The “OK Boomer” social media jokes of our children and grand-children have largely been administered with jest and good humor (and more than a little veracity). The memes identifying Covid-19 as the “boomer remover,” while they are probably meant largely again in jest, and don’t truly reflect the fact that the virus is more a “nursing home remover,” are a different matter. These memes, but more importantly the public attitudes they darkly represent, are accompanied by government policies to lift restrictions before the pandemic has been put to bed. This rush to opening the economy, while an increasing majority of Americans are not social distancing or masking, will in no-uncertain-terms lead to thousands of early deaths and terrible suffering among baby boomers and tens of thousands deaths for our elders in the Silent Generation. This makes “boomer remover” a completely different and much more serious matter than “OK boomer.”
I plan to treat this “othering” of the nation’s elderly in a subsequent post.