Corona paternalism run amok

In the weekly community email I still receive from my New York hometown came an announcement of the resumption of synagogue services on a limited basis. Along with the litany of rules and precautions which have become all too familiar in corona times was the following caveat (capital letters in original): “Minyanim are EXCLUSIVELY for males between the ages of 13 and 65. AT THIS TIME WE ARE NOT READY TO ALLOW PEOPLE OLDER THAN 65 TO ATTEND MINYANIM. We make this limit out of a concern for the safety of this vulnerable population. We will revisit this as time passes.”

This message, couched in the language of caring, left me cold.

One of the most salient aspects of Covid-19 has been its disproportionate effect on older people. Worldwide, the vast majority of fatalities have been seniors, and even those who do not succumb to the virus are at higher risk for complications. As the debates that began months ago regarding the wisdom of wholesale lockdowns have morphed into arguments about the proper path in reopening, one drumbeat hasn’t changed: Keep the older folks inside.

It may be prudent for many seniors to continue to avoid public spaces, depending upon their medical condition, particular location and circumstances, and psychological disposition. We all have our own level of risk tolerance, our personal assessment of the costs and benefits of various activities. I might think skydiving (remember George H.W.?) or climbing Everest or eating deep-fried Oreos to be unthinkably dangerous, but for others that’s where the good living happens.

Making an informed choice means understanding the risks. As long as they are of sound mind, older people are entitled to the same rights as younger members of the community to weigh the risks and decide how to navigate this coronavirus world.  There can be no We make this limit” as long as those over 65 are excluded from the intelligent, responsible collective.

Seniors are not a monolithic group; they’re not all sickly folks who will keel over at first brush with a microbe or who can’t remember where they put their car keys. Some might feel safer sheltering at home, while others might be unwilling to isolate themselves from society indefinitely and will carefully and selectively re-engage with normal life, even if that means increasing their chance of infection. Younger people with varying levels of risk must make parallel calculations.

Much has been written about reining in politicians whose eagerness to swipe away rights and freedoms in the name of public welfare has given rise to another type of galloping infection. But it’s not only governments infantilizing the elderly. Now that the rules are easing up in most places, older people are being held in the grip of strictures ostensibly put in place for their protection. Such approaches, like that New York shul bulletin, don’t confer dignity or respect – they obliterate them.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., is a contributing editor for The Jewish Press and is at work on her second children's book for Targum Press. (Her first title, Kalman’s Big Questions, was published last year.) She feels grateful to be living with her husband and children in Jerusalem.
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