COVID-19 and the value of human life: What if the vulnerable population was flipped?


As I lay awake in the wee hours of the morning, after having yet another debate regarding COVID-19 and reopening the economy, my thoughts were rambling.   I am ready for some return of any semblance of normalcy—like most everyone in the world right now—whatever that “new normal” may look like.  I look forward to a nice dinner out, to seeing my extended family again, to seeing patients in person in the office again, to not having to wear a mask every working hour.   But I recognize, as the general public does not seem to, that we are still not ready to return to “normal.”   I have read numerous articles and personal stories, both in the medical literature and via social media.  I have heard from friends and colleagues around the country horror stories of this disease.  The public has widely been spared the details of what this disease does to the human body, and for that, they should be grateful.

They aren’t.

Those people in areas of the country that have not been hit as hard by SARS-CoV-2 are quick to claim that the government has “overstepped,” that our governors and our president have violated their constitutional rights and quashed their freedom.  That this pandemic has all been blown out of proportion.  It is no worse than the flu, right?

Guess what—it hasn’t.  Yes, populations differ.  Yes, population density in cities and states around the country differ.  The fact that we are now seeing decreasing reports of new cases and lower mortality means two things:

  • Social distancing and staying at home has worked.
  • Physicians and other health care workers in the US and around the world have learned a great deal about how to treat this virus in a short amount of time.

I have heard and seen many disturbing posts, protest signs, tweets, and comments—individuals saying, “Let the weak die! I need to work!”  Or “who cares about 6 percent mortality? Those people were going to die anyway”—by the way, not my numbers.

For those individuals, ask yourselves this.  Flip the vulnerable population.

What if COVID-19 affected mostly children?  What if it had spread like wildfire through daycares and schools instead of nursing homes? What if tens of thousands of babies and children were dying? Would society be okay with that?

What if the virus targeted age groups 20-40, leaving tens of thousands of children motherless, fatherless?  What mortality rate would be acceptable enough for the world to say—abandon all the measures we have taken!  Do I need to go out to dinner, to a movie, etc.?

Why is one life more valuable than another?  And who gets to decide that?  Not me.

Have we forgotten the incredible value that our elder generations add to our culture?  I am very fortunate to have both of my grandmothers, ages 89 and 93, alive and in pretty good health and mentally sharp.  They have dedicated their lives to caring for and nurturing others—one ran a daycare for more than 30 years, and the other raised six children and was a pastor’s wife.   They have taught me a great deal in life and continue to bring our family joy.  A friend wrote to me of her own parents, allowing me to share part of her story here.

Elderly people are not disposable burdens.  They helped to make this country great and free.  My dad is 93, a WWII veteran; his body is worn from years of farming … his mind is still sharp.  My mom is 87. She worked extremely hard, cooking all morning for the farmhands and then went to the fields to work every day.  These two people are the core of this family.  They are not disposable!

You see, the people most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 did not choose to become infected. For those in the nursing homes, the virus was brought in to them. They certainly did not choose to die in isolation. So, how can I not choose to do such simple things that are within my control?  I can choose to continue social distancing for whatever time it takes.  Whatever the mortality of this deadly virus turns out to be, we have lost too many.  Let us not lose our humanity, too.

Jessica D. Lee is a neurologist.

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