Who Lives? Who Dies?

At a time when our resources, especially medical, are being stretched thin, everyone from politicians to health care workers have raised the issue of who lives and who dies in this pandemic. It’s a choice doctors and nurses are having to make every day in hospitals that are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and where ventilators and other medical resources are scarce. Some politicians have even suggested that the cost of a few elderly people dying is less than halting our whole economy. Younger people have referred to the pandemic as the “boomer remover.”

Although shocking, it raises the question: is a young person’s life more valuable than an older person’s? In strictly biological terms, the answer is yes, because younger people are able to perpetuate our species; they can have children and raise families and are able to contribute to the economy. Those of us who are retired, even if we volunteer, are taking more than we’re giving: living off the fruit of our life-long labors.

And yet there’s a cultural value to the accrued wisdom of older people. In more traditional societies, it was the elders who carried with them the vast knowledge of survival: where to find food and shelter and how to keep peace and when to make war. In the animal kingdom,  elephant herds are often led by the older matriarch, the one that knows, for example, where to find watering holes when the land is dry.

On the other hand, I think of the stories I’ve heard of native people who live in remote regions of the Arctic. In winter, when food became scarce, the old ones would wander off into the cold to die, sacrificing their lives so their families would have enough food to get through the winter.

We live in a different world, of course—one where family or tribal bonds are not as strong and in a technological world where the wisdom of the elderly is apparently not needed—in fact, our ignorance of the online world is scorned.

I was interested, therefore, to read the perspective of two doctors, both seniors (although they don’t provide their ages), who wrote about their own personal dilemma in a world of scarce resources.* Faced with the decision of whether to go to the hospital if they fell seriously ill from  COVID-19, the two doctors have made the decision to stay home and let the generation that includes their children and grandchildren use the overloaded hospital’s resources. At home, they would be closer to family and friends, at least via technology, than isolated in the ICU and therefore able to discuss their health situation—and all the options—with loved ones. At the hospital a harried nurse or doctor might have to make that decision.

Their reasoning seems both compassionate and wise. Would I be willing and courageous enough to make the same decision? Would I be willing to forego using a ventilator so someone else could use one? I’m not sure.

–Kathy Kaiser

*”Coronavirus Means Tough Decision Time for Seniors,” by James Adams and James Baker, in Common Dreams, March 31, 2020.

6 thoughts on “Who Lives? Who Dies?

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  1. When I was young, I didn’t see the value of old people, either. Yet imagine what the world would look like if everyone over, say, 65 were to suddenly vanish. All that wisdom, born of hard-won experience; not to mention all the humanitarian initiatives that rely on the volunteer services of retired folk … For me, the question of who should live and who should die is based on a flawed assumption: that the young and the old are in competition for scarce resources, and only one of them can win. One could say that, flawed though this assumption is, it’s how our society is rigged to work—it’s what we’ve got, so we have no choice but to play by those rules. Or one could say, as many progressive voices are pointing out, that the pandemic is exposing the inadequacy and cruelty of the rules we’ve come to live by, and offering us an opportunity to change them. For myself, I refuse to enter into a life-or-death competition with millennials for resources that have become scarce only because old white men have rigged the system, and young white (mostly) men are elbowing us and each other out of the way to become its next beneficiaries.

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  2. Great essay, Kathy. Good point about the elephants vs. the Eskimos. So interesting. Such a cultural conundrum. On the other hand, while young people can procreate and continue the species, there are way too many people on the planet already. So is that an important consideration? Thanks for your insights so well expressed.

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    1. thanks, Reed. I agree there’s too many people using too many resources. I think one solution is for everyone to use less.

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  3. An excellent piece, Kathy, and something to think about. My own thoughts on this topic are that it should be an individual choice and not one decided for us by someone else. There is no wrong choice and it is shameful when politicians or others try to force one on us. Is my life more valuable than someone who still has many more years ahead of them? In some cases, maybe so, and in others maybe not. Just because someone is young doesn’t guarantee that they will be a big and worthwhile contributor to society as a whole.

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    1. Thanks, Rosemary. You make a good point that it should be an individual choice. We all have different values, strengths, dreams. We all have strong feelings about what’s right for us and for the world, of which we’re all a part.

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