Over the last week or so, we have been exposed to two very different narratives regarding the relationship between the COVID-19 pandemic and the elderly. The first narrative, and the dominant narrative in Israel and across the world, is the narrative of protection. As laid out by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett in a video clip that he posted, among others: all people need to isolate themselves, close the schools, and ultimately stop the economy, for the sake of the grandparents. Since the novel coronavirus is much deadlier for those over 70 than it is for children and young adults, everyone must act to protect the seniors. According to this narrative, the virus that is threatening us is more dangerous than the flu and other epidemics because when it hits the older members of society, it hits hard and threatens their lives. The young must stay indoors because they love their seniors and must protect them. This narrative is paternalistic, for when the government enjoins the young to protect the elderly, they cloak the assumption that the venerable would not act to protect themselves. On the whole, however, this narrative has been embraced by the elderly, who want to live, and who appreciate the concern afforded to them.
The second, perhaps surprising and competing narrative, and one that has been taking hold among conservatives in the US, is the call for sacrifice. Donald Trump and many of his conservative supporters have begun to argue that concern for the elderly cannot bring the economy to a halt and that the elderly should be willing to sacrifice their own health and endanger their own well-being in order to allow their children and grandchildren to flourish. Bringing the world to its knees with impossibly high levels of unemployment and a worldwide recession for the sake of the elderly, it is argued, is not an appropriate measure. Such a recession will hurt the young and active too much, and too many children will be forced inside for too long. Instead, the elderly should isolate themselves as much as possible but cannot expect the world to sacrifice on their behalf. To the contrary, they should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the young.
While this second narrative is especially troubling because of its flippant attitude to the sanctity of life, both narratives trouble me. The second troubles me because society must respect its elders, whose lives are certainly not worth less than those of the young. None of us knows how much longer we have on this earth, but the years that the elders have are no less precious than the years of the young, even children. Overly utilitarian in its orientation, this second argument is asking one segment of the population to lay down their lives to increase the fulfillment of the other. While utilitarian trade-offs will have to be made in this pandemic, the elderly cannot be asked to sacrifice themselves for others. Everyone should be willing to trade discomfort for the well-being of others — maybe not forever, but at this point, the young are not even close to having done enough for the people who bore and raised them.
But the first is also troubling. It is also extreme. First of all, because we cannot stay indoors indefinitely, but more importantly, because this virus threatens all of us. While more of the elderly die, young people die too. Moreover, the experience of this virus is horrible for many who are infected. We cannot make this virus solely about the elderly. Society as a whole must be especially sensitive to the fears and concerns of this vulnerable population, but we must also remember that children, youth, and adults, many of whom are caregivers for the elderly, are all partners in this awful predicament. We are all suffering and we are all afraid of the illness that surrounds us.
We need to develop a third narrative — a narrative of partnership. The young and middle-aged must work together with the elderly to get through this horrible pandemic. The seniors are neither nameless incompetents who need the protection of the young, nor should they be regarded as martyrs who need to sacrifice for the greater good. They are parents, grandparents, neighbors, friends, leaders and students – rich, multivalent roles in society. The younger population should ask the older population what it needs. The older population should ask the younger population what it needs. Together, as partners, all must find a balance between protection and sacrifice. No one can be sealed off from the virus and no one expects to be. The economy and the schools cannot be closed down indefinitely to ensure that there are no deaths, but we cannot willingly sacrifice millions of lives or cause suffering for millions either. The real narrative is complex, interactive, and human. We must compromise and discuss and try different things. And, in the end, we will overcome.