“ I don’t know what people are worrying about. It’s just going to kill the old folks.”
That’s one of the many remarks I have overheard on public transport this week since conversations started to focus in on COVID-19. When you couple these comments with public officials stating in the media that the majority of deaths from the virus have been “just amongst the elderly” you are left with the distinct impression that this is not a pandemic the majority of us need to get too worried about.
But the place where such attitudes have almost become endemic is social media. There are literally hundreds of tweets suggesting that those of a youthful age and who are not immuno-suppressed need not worry – all will be well – just clean your hands! Some of the content on Twitter really doesn’t hold back:
‘Corona virus is killing pretty much just old people. It sounds like Earth is getting revenge for them destroying literally the entire planet and not caring about it.’
‘What I find so funny about this is the corona virus is deadly to old people which are the establishment and conservatives biggest base. If god uses diseases to punish I wonder what message hes saying with this one.’
Not since the AIDS epidemic was painted as the judgment of a righteous God has there been such a negative discriminatory association between a virus and a specific group.
Of course, the reality is that any virus never discriminates by the age of its victim but rather anybody regardless of their date of birth and most especially those with a supressed or limited immune system are disproportionately affected.
I find it immensely despairing that there is both within the wider public and in the media a creeping ageism in the reporting of and discussions around COVID-19. It is almost as if because someone is older in years that their dying is of less impact or importance; that their loss to the community, to family and friends is somehow less painful and distressing to those left behind.
At one level you could say that what we are seeing here is simply classic age discrimination playing out on Covid-19 as it does in so many walks of life from employment to the allocation of public funding. But I suspect at another level what is happening is something much more significant and profound.
What does this say about us as communities and as a nation in Scotland? Is the virus beginning to strip away the polite veneer that hides attitudes and beliefs that are simply ageist and hostile against the old? Are we finally unmasking a popular consensus that considers that to be old means that your worth is over, your contribution complete and your value limited?
The way in which we respond to any challenge marks us out both as individuals and as a community. Are we going to be one which in cold-centred self-interest and protection considers the value of an old person to be less than someone much younger? Are we going to become blasé to the fact that perhaps thousands of our older citizens will be affected by and many will die as a result of this disease?
Over the next few days and weeks thousands of women and men who work in health and social care services will be putting other people, their care and support, before their own needs. We will undoubtedly as we often have in the past witness a selfless dedication and professionalism that doesn’t just go the extra mile but an extra marathon in terms of commitment, compassion and love.
The days ahead will help to shape us as a society. Will we be a Scotland which cares for others, gives value and grants respect regardless of chronology or age? Or will we care less, commit less, consider less because someone is in their eighties or nineties?
Coronavirus will be a test not just of the infrastructures of health and care, of business and commerce, it will be a test which will determine the nature of our nation. Will we be a Scotland that cares for the old or will our compassion be limited by discrimination?
Dr Donald Macaskill
This piece first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday 8th March 2020.