When the world turns upside down it is only human to be afraid, to try to protect yourself and your loved ones. I recall New York in the crime-filled 1980s when hearing about almost daily murders and rapes, the first thing I would check is where they happened. Not in general, like “in Manhattan,” but specifically, on which corner of which street. Because there is some bizarre connection our brain makes when processing risk – I’ll call it “the self-safety calculation.” When you find out the murder was on the southeast corner of 3rd Avenue and 86th street, your brain says “Thank God, I have never been to that corner so I am safe.” There is no reason for that assumption to be true going forwards, unless, of course, you believe that all of the criminals have now decided to limit all violent crime to that corner.
But that rationalization is there for a reason. We need to feel a certain degree of safety in order to function. We need to believe we have a certain amount of control over our own fate. So my self-safety calculation during the Intifada had a long list of absurd conclusions of how I survived it: “oh, I never take the 6:05 bus, I take a later one,” is how my brain creates a degree of separation between me and the tragedy, just enough for me to conclude that I am safe.
Now the world is upside down and we see and rationalize things to help us cope. Upon awakening, everyone here in Israel rushes to see the latest COVID-19 numbers. Sadly, I think that the first information people look for is not how many were diagnosed as positive, or how many died? I think they check to see if they can feel safe for one more day. How? By absorbing two other bits of information: How old were the people who died is the first one. It’s easy to cross yourself off that list if you are under 65. And the older they are, the more a reader might feel that at least they lived a long and hopefully happy life.
The second thing people look for is a description that has recently become applicable to me, that of having an underlying medical condition. It’s a label that will haunt me throughout the corona pandemic. Once people see that description next to a death notice they can relax because they are not one of those with an underlying medical condition.
I don’t mind that this soothes people, everyone needs to find ways to cope. But precisely the information that calms others terrifies me.The threat is embedded in almost every Coronavirus update: “15 April 2020 news report: 6 additional deaths from Corona. A 90 year old man from Tzfat, 2 women in their 80’s from a Nursing Home in Rehovot, a 40 year old man from Kiryat Gat with “An Underlying Medical Condition,” a 57 year old from Efrat with “An Underlying Medical Condition,” and a 25 year old man who had contact with a tourist from Japan” (big photo of the 25 year old).
For the younger, healthier kind of people, the death of my kind of people seems a little less tragic. The thought may flit by, unspoken, that they were probably going to die anyway. But mostly an attitude emerges that these people are “other.” And as we know from history, “others” become distant from us. And the deaths of “others” start to be lumped together in the “it’s not as horrible category.”
I have accepted being disabled (sort of, still working on it). And while many aspects of having “underlying medical conditions” are really, really hard, what is harder still is the thought that if God forbid I become a casualty of COVID-19, I won’t be listed in the paper as “Jordana Klein, mother of three and devoted wife of almost 35 years. An artist. A sister, a friend and a loving child to my elderly parents.” I will be listed as “An Underlying Condition” so that everybody can sleep better that night.
But at what expense? It is a slippery slope when some deaths are seen to be “less bad.” The Talmud likens saving one person to saving a world. As a society we all need to be equal and united as one. We need to avoid the risks of classifying people into different categories — categories that may ultimately lead to decisions over who should “qualify” for the next ventilator available. Because at some point we Underlying Medical Conditions people may find ourselves being moved to the end of the line.