Coronavirus is no leveller. People who are sick, disabled, poor, old, alone, black, or migrants are dying in disproportionate numbers. It has been devastating – and inescapable even for this government – to see the high mortality rates among BAME communities. But many people seem less perturbed by the huge death rates in older age groups. It took until 28th April – five weeks after lockdown – for statistics on Coronavirus in care homes to be published.
Both the left and the right have focused on “front-line workers” – cast as “heroes” in a metaphorical war against an indomitable enemy. Their courage is undeniable and unbearable, but shining a spotlight on them leaves most of the dead in the shadows.
Older people’s contribution to the “war” effort is mostly unrecognised. They are categorised as an economic liability. In the Coronavirus crisis, this turns out to be a capital offence.
Early on, when deaths were still being reported individually, the victims were mostly described as “elderly” (resurrecting a delicate term for the shameful condition of being old) and/or with “underlying health conditions”. The implication was that, as mortality seemed predominantly confined to old people who were at death’s door anyway, this was sad but acceptable.
China and Italy had already shown that older people with some existing health conditions were particularly susceptible to Covid-19. But instead of that triggering extra protection, they and their carers were knowingly exposed to the virus. Carers going from client to client in countless care homes, and making an estimated million visits a day to people in their own homes, still have even less PPE than hospital staff. They are in danger themselves and are spreading the virus.
On 17th March, news broke of large numbers of old people dying in Spanish care homes. Troops in Spain later found rest home residents abandoned, some dead in their beds. Since then, the death rates in Britain’s care homes have been described as “carnage” and a “massacre”.
Capitalism writes off anyone of low or no economic value. The conditions in many care homes, exacerbated by privatisation, austerity and outsourcing statutory services to charities, were shortening lives before Covid-19. This should have been high on the left’s agenda. Instead, we hear complaints about the “demographic in the room” as activists blame inequality on “the older generation”.
Recently, the editor of a radical online newspaper tweeted: “Millennials who’ve survived three global financial crisis [sic] and a pandemic, don’t need to be lectured… by Boomers who grew up with a full welfare state, affordable housing, job security, & trashed it all by the time they reached retirement.” Class, corporate power, the military-industrial complex – all the violent structures maintaining injustice – are magically replaced by old people. Old people who are scared – of receiving care and of not receiving care; of being unable to get basic necessities; of being refused hospital treatment; of being locked up until August 2021.
Routine ridiculing, degradation and blaming of old people has allowed the government to treat them as acceptable collateral damage as they callously prioritise the economy over human lives. Socialists should not collude, but should demand that the state treat every single life as equally precious.
by Julia Bard, Member, St. George’s Ward