Are “Death Panels” an idea whose time has come? Tobin says ‘no”

No matter a coronavirus pandemic, the elderly are not expendable

In spite of frustration with restrictions, fears about medical shortages and the desire to revive the economy, nothing can justify treating the lives of older persons as not worth saving.

By Jonathan S Tobin, jns

(March 25, 2020 / JNS) The coronavirus pandemic is rapidly spreading across the globe with frightening speed. Governments are increasingly adopting plans that restrict citizens to their homes, as in Israel, which is now on total lockdown, in an attempt to prevent the infection rate from spiking to the point where medical facilities will be overwhelmed.

But even as the new normal has become more accepted, the pushback against the notion that shutting down our regular lives and the economy is Coronavirus scofflaws come from a variety of backgrounds. It was that same spirit of stubborn resistance against reality that drove both pleasure-seeking American kids to Florida beaches for spring break and some ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students to attend their classes or weddings in recent weeks despite the clear danger such activities posed to themselves and others, especially those most vulnerable to the virus.

A more insidious threat comes from those proposing that we lift the restrictions for the sake of the economy or suggest that the elderly ought to consent to be sacrificed for the convenience of those who are younger.

One particularly egregious example of this came from Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In an interview on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News, Patrick argued that senior citizens ought to acquiesce to being endangered by a quick resumption of normal life for the good of the country, rather than let their grandchildren suffer through another Great Depression.

“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me. … No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren? And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Patrick has taken a deserved drubbing for suggesting that senior citizens ought to trade their survival for the sake of their descendant’s prosperity. But he’s far from the only one to make such utilitarian arguments.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a Jewish bioethicist and the brother of former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, was one of the key figures behind the adoption of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. He’s now also the most prominent member of a committee formed to advise former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic Party presidential nominee, about the coronavirus crisis.

That is significant because Emanuel has been a prominent advocate not merely of rationing, but of more general utilitarian attitudes about health care for the elderly. In 2014, the then 57-year-old bioethicist wrote in The Atlantic about how he only wished to live to the age of 75, which he saw as the optimal life span for Americans. While not explicitly advocating eugenics or denying care to the elderly, Emanuel argued that people are living too long and becoming burdens not only to themselves, but to their children and society.

Chillingly, in light of today’s crisis, he recommended that those over 75 should not have flu shots, especially in the event of a pandemic where shortages might occur. He quoted approvingly a classic medical text that spoke of pneumonia as “the friend of the aged” since it allows the elderly to escape distressing years of “decay.”

That such attitudes may be informing the 77-year-old Biden about health care is alarming, as well as ironic. But at a time when Italian hospitals have already been advised by leading medical authorities in that country to adopt wartime triage procedures when it comes to deciding which coronavirus victims will get life-saving treatment, including the use of increasingly scarce respirators, such attitudes ought to scare Americans as similar problems start to arise here.

Republicans argued against Obamacare in part because of the prospect of “death panels” deciding who should be given life-saving treatment. Yet as the coronavirus crisis worsens, arguments framed very much along the same lines as those articulated by Emanuel will win out on Trump’s watch in the absence of an opposing and coherent bioethical vision.

The coronavirus task force headed by Vice President Mike Pence lacks a prominent bioethical voice who might advise the president about the ethical choices involved in prematurely ending quarantine policies. Indeed, Trump is the first president in decades not to appoint a body to advise him on bioethical issues.

Not all of the victims of the virus are over 65, but they remain the most at risk, along with anyone who has a pre-existing health condition (another form of eugenics). In Italy, 85.6 percent of those who have died from the illness have been past the age of 70, lending weight to the suspicion that authorities there are devoting scarce respirators to younger patients and have decided to let the elderly die.

Our values— and, in particular, those teachings handed down by Jewish tradition and faith—require us to take actions to prevent the elderly from being sacrificed, even if that impose hardships on the rest of the society. Even a cursory study of Jewish texts—starting with the Ten Commandments and all the way through Talmudic teachings and the writings of modern Jewish thinkers like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—mandate that every possible effort should be expended to promote policies that will seek to avoid such dilemmas.

There’s also the fact that some of those dying now from the virus are Holocaust survivors. Israel’s first fatality during the pandemic was 88-year-old Aryeh Even, a survivor who went on to work in Israel’s foreign ministry. Another was 92-year-old Rabbi Avraham “Romi” Cohn, a partisan fighter who went on to be a mohel in New York City and gave the opening prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz earlier this year.

It’s not irrational to ask if the cost of the cure is as bad as the disease. But do we really think the lives of such people are not worthy of preservation? Are we so lacking in a moral compass that we would claim that money, even the good of the national economy, is of greater value than the patriarchs and matriarchs of our families.

To his credit, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu framed the issue about taking urgent action to combat the spread of the virus, he spoke of its primary victims as grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers and mothers, rather than merely those over 65. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has similarly touched many hearts in explaining the problem by referring to the need to protect his own widowed mother.

Treating the lives of older citizens as a precious and loved resource, rather than a group who has lived too long to be of any use, is an imperative for an ethical society that is faced with difficult health-care policy questions. That is true for the State of Israel, which is avowedly informed by Jewish faith, teachings and ethics. But it is just as vital for all Americans to reaffirm that these are our values, too.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

March 26, 2020 | 12 Comments » | 425 views

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12 Comments / 12 Comments

  1. I realize, some people will not want to read this but I will post it for those whose mind is still open a crack:
    1) Below (point (9)) are the flu vs. coronavirus statistics in the US – why is the US health system NOT overwhelmed EVERY YEAR? It should be crashing annually (together with the economy).
    2) The Death Panels idea’s time HAS come if they even DARE to raise the subject;
    3) Dan Patrick is a HERO who actually THINKS instead of REACTING in a knee-jerk fashion;
    4) Ezekiel (REALLY? he should have his name changed to Adolf H.) Emmanuel is a dangerous lunatic bordering on criminally insane;
    5) Read this and weep, for this is what the world is coming to repeat (Nazi eugenics):
    (6) Flu vaccines are NOT life savers. Flu vaccines have (sometimes nasty) side effects, and the original viruses mutate. A flu vaccine may cause lung disease possibly ending in the dreaded lung fibrosis in high risk people:
    (7) There are many causes of lung fibrosis other than a complication of coronavirus infection:
    (8) BTW, The US Jews have a higher % of older people (“high risk”) than the average;
    (9) Read the flu vs. coronavirus statistics and judge for yourselves:
    “CDC estimates that, from October 1, 2019, through March 14, 2020, there have been:
    38,000,000 – 54,000,000 flu illnesses
    17,000,000 – 25,000,000 flu medical visits
    390,000 – 710,000 flu hospitalizations
    23,000 – 59,000 flu deaths” NO HYSTERIA.
    23,000:5.5mos = ~4182 deaths from the flu/mo (AVG)
    This wasn’t the worst flu season.
    “In recent years, for example, it’s estimated that between about 70 percent and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older, and between 50 percent and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in this age group.” NO HYSTERIA.
    “Coronavirus Cases: 68,203” (03-25-20 9:35pm CST)
    1027:~2mos = ~513 deaths/mo (AVG) EXTREME HYSTERIA.
    I assumed the time period from Feb. 1, 2020 March 25, 2020

  2. @ Reader:
    What I have explained to me by a medical professional is that Covid-19 is much worse than the flu. It is way more contagious and that is why some places are having their health systems overwhelmed. It is NOT panic that is causing the shortage of ventilators it is that Covid-19 is a very bad disease and more and more patients need the ventilators.

    There are only treatments that are being tested at this point and no vaccine. So the analogies with the flu are not valid.

    The projections for the amount of deaths by scientists, is that it will cause range from the very very bad to super super horribly large numbers.

  3. @ Bear Klein:
    I will not argue with you because it is pointless.
    And I don’t care much for the opinions of most “medical professionals”.
    I will just say that those health care systems which are overwhelmed wouldn’t be if they didn’t treat non-emergency suspected coronavirus cases as emergency and if they had proper testing procedures situated away from the hospitals’ emergency rooms.
    They don’t have enough test kits and ventilators?
    Well, how come?
    Is it because the accursed chicoms monopolized the production of these things? Well, buy some from them!
    How come the mighty United States and the highly technological Israel, to say nothing of the EU were not only caught with their pants down but seemingly choose not to pull them up, and the best thing they seem to be able to do is to lock up the”high-risk” elderly and whine about the lack and the overwhelm?
    There is a saying:

  4. @ Reader:
    Very uninformed comment. The treatment for C-19 is ventilation for 11-14 days. Influenza is less hospital intensive. Everyone is susceptible to C-19, influenza has a vaccine that usually reduces symptoms. Your numbers include what? C-19 is a permanent infection held in stasis until old age or declined immune system resulting in death. Delayed liability.

  5. @ deanblake:
    “Your numbers include what?”
    They are NOT MY NUMBERS.
    They include the number of cases and the number of deaths from the flu vs. the same for coronavirus in the US (the explanation is printed there and you can visit the links to the websites).
    Based on these numbers, SO FAR, the flu looks a lot more deadly and contagious than COVID-19 but the flu does not generate the same panic.
    A human body is full of viruses and bacteria but they don’t normally cause illness. Does this mean that every human is “permanently infected”?
    I’ve never seen anything like the information that you provided in your post.
    Could you please give a source for it for my further education on this subject.
    I can provide a link about new medical treatment for COVID-19 but I am NOT taking any responsibility for its validity (I found it by accident):

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