Health

Weekend Essay – a new virus for old people

BY John Pollock   /  14 March 2020

Let us cherish and love old age; for it is full of pleasure if one knows how to use it.

Seneca: Letters to Lucilius

Unlike the Spanish flu, which generally took the young and the poor, we know that coronavirus – COVID-19 – will mostly take the very old. Those aged eighty or more have already won a decade beyond their Biblical allocation of “three score years and ten”; testament to the extraordinary health and wealth gains wrought in the century since the Spanish Flu burnt out. For those with four score years or more, coronavirus mortality rises sharply. Notably, those entering their ninth decade in 2020 were born in the year of The Battle of Britain, and the coronavirus fight will be another hard conflict (albeit with fewer dogfights, although catfights – over, of all things, loo paper – seem depressingly likely). Back in 1940, many of our 600,000 or so nonagenarians will have watched those famous contrails with childish wonder. Now, eighty years on, and with around half a million people in the air at any one time, the global skies are again full of threat. Meanwhile the elderly will watch, more quietly this time, to see how we respond to this dangerous new risk.

That risk is, undoubtedly, being quietly crunched by actuaries in anonymous offices: the economic ‘value’ of the old calculated, the triage and trade-offs weighed and made. And, as with so much of the dismal science, the quantitative inevitably excludes the qualitative: numbers are loveless. Meanwhile, in hate-filled corners of public ‘debate’, like Twitter and social media, the ignorant say that ‘only old people will die’. Like old age itself, this increasingly vile ageism has crept upon us imperceptibly, and generally unremarked. (Some of the bile directed at older voters around Brexit was breathtakingly awful).

Yet this pandemic isn’t the kind of dangerous and unexpected Black Swan event which Lebanese author and intellectual brawler Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about – this particular swan was a damn sight more predictable than most. In the two decades since the (much more deadly) H5N1 influenza virus emerged in Hong Kong, our lack of preparedness for a global disease has exercised serious minds from doctors to Bill Gates. Gates has repeatedly issued warnings on this topic: five years ago for instance, and again less than two years ago. “There’s one area though where the world isn’t making much progress,” he said, “and that’s pandemic preparedness.” He predicted it was coming, could kill 30 million people worldwide – and argued that we should prepare for it as if for looming war.

We didn’t.

Instead, for the last few years, we’ve engaged in another sort of war, the culture war, while pouring enormous amounts of our treasure and collective energy into a climate ‘emergency’, the potential impact of which is – much of the science believes – several generations away. Unsurprisingly, a glance at what Taleb calls the IYIs (“Intellectuals Yet Idiots”) over at the World Economic Forum, in their annual Global Risk report published in January 2019, shows they identified a smörgåsbord of environmental concerns – eco-risks like “failure of climate mitigation and adaptation”, “man-made environmental disasters” and so on – as the most likely to occur and to have the highest impact.

Lurking in a more boring corner of their 2019 risk “map’ was “the spread of infectious diseases”. Given that in 2018 cases of malaria alone stood at 228 million, with 405,000 deaths, and leaving aside our recent and ongoing experience with SARS, H5N1, and Ebola, the WEF report’s opening line – “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” – seems grimly ironic. But Davos, and hungry money hunting ‘trends’, has ever tacked in search of more fashionable wind.

As Taleb has recently pointed out on Twitter (where he likes to pick fights): “the loss of GDP from the virus is not a ‘surprise’ nor a ‘one off’ event. Past GDP gains from globalization produced ‘interlocking fragility’ (#TheBlackSwan), with fake growth/profits & #pseudoefficiency. Globalization produce small gains with delayed costs.”

For years now the topic of resilience (and our lack of it) has been increasingly popular among policy wonks. Politicians, not so much. They should – and many undoubtedly will – take their lumps on this one. Yet this is also an event which, as Turkish techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufecki correctly points out , involves us all – not least as an opportunity to show that, collectively, we are smart, civic, and that we can and should be fundamentally kind-hearted in our responses.

We can all reduce our social swim, wash our hands and so on – but we must recognise, above all, that the elders among us deserve our every consideration. Because we are unlikely to see this extraordinary vintage of humankind again, because they are living history (and we don’t want to be condemned to repeat their history), and because it shows – rather than signals –virtue.

As P.D. James wrote in The Children of Men, “Generosity is a virtue for individuals, not Governments. When governments are generous it is with other people’s money, other people’s safety, other people’s future.” Individually, now is the time to recognise that the old among us are a rich treasure of living history, heaped up at considerable cost over many decades, and yet available, for so little effort, to all. This recognition is long overdue in the ‘first’ world, if not elsewhere. (In Jordan, I once talked with an elderly shopkeeper who kept asking me, in his broken English, to tell him more about the “prisons” he’d heard we kept old people in. It took me some time to realise he meant retirement homes.)

Another notable Lebanese writer, Mikhail Naimy – friend and biographer of Khalil Gibran, supposedly the world’s third most popular poet – is unusually eloquent about old age. In The Book of Mirdad: The strange story of a monastery which was once called The Ark, a group of monks are about to kill off their oldest cow, Sim-sim. Mirdad, the mysterious figure at the heart of the book, takes issue. In an extraordinary passage, he begins: “A dreadful burden is Old Age to man as well as to beast. And men have made it doubly so by their neglectful heartlessness. Upon a newborn babe they lavish their utmost care and affection. But to an age-burdened man they reserve their indifference more than their care, and their disgust more than their sympathy.” After detailing the woes of old age, and of the sun going down, he goes on, in words we might all usefully take to heart:

“Are you not harvesting even this very moment the life of every man and woman that ever walked this Earth? What is your speech but the harvest of their speech? What are your thoughts but the gleanings of their thoughts? Your very clothes and dwellings, your food, your implements, your laws, your traditions and conventions, are they not the clothes, the dwellings, the food, the implements, the laws, the traditions and conventions of those who had been and gone before? … An old man whose life you have harvested and put away in granaries is surely worthy of your utmost care.”


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