Editor’s Note: Ed Adler is a partner in a global strategic communications firm. He spent 36 years at Time Warner, many of them as head of the company’s corporate communications. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.
I was talking to a friend the other day about the pandemic, and we were musing about when we could end our isolation. Now that the world is beginning to reopen prematurely amid rising infection numbers, I have been thinking especially of those of us in our 60s and older. While the Covid-19 virus attacks all ages, we are among those at greatest risk.
What I realized is that we will not be back to normal for a long, long time. Others will venture out. My son (26) and daughter (22) will surely risk the threat of infection and try to resume some normalcy. But for older folks and those with pre-existing conditions, our isolation must be ongoing. We will be the last to resume activity and continue our lives.
And while we wait, we can hear the echoes of those who care little about our vulnerability. One example: As the virus swept across the US, a city official in Antioch, California, said Covid-19 should be allowed to run its course, even if elderly and homeless people die. Ken Turnage, chairman of the city’s planning commission, posted on Facebook that the country needed to adopt a “Herd Mentality” that “allows the sick, the old, the injured to meet its natural course in nature.”
Turnage, who later deleted the post, refused to resign or retract his comments and was removed from his role. But the remarks shook me.
Not everyone expresses themselves as callously as Turnage. Yet I’m equally appalled by those who’ve suggested the physically weak should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the future of the economy. Even Dr. Mehmet Oz seemed to incline to that view when in April he told Fox News that school re-openings were an “appetizing opportunity” because they “may only cost us 2 to 3% in terms of total mortality.” He was citing an editorial in The Lancet that said studies had shown school closures alone would reduce Covid-19 deaths in the UK by only 2 to 4 percent according to the New York Times. Oz has since said he “misspoke,” but that’s little comfort for me, a member of the vulnerable older demographic – disproportionately dying from the disease — who would be sacrificed because of an impatience felt by some to “open up.”
The term “culling of the herd” is a euphemism for a dark strategy to kick-start an economy severely damaged by lockdowns. It also feels like a nice way of saying that my older friends and I could (and some believe should) be allowed to die. Translated, that means we are like bovines who have bad meat and thus should be expendable to save all the other tasty cows and bulls.
The phrase is chilling. And there is another ugly rancher-influenced turn of phrase that is equally scary to me and my boomer cohorts. It’s “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity occurs when a high proportion of the population – an estimated 70% for Covid-19 – has developed immunity after exposure to the virus, or through vaccination and the protection, somewhat, of the part of the population that is not immune. The problem with allowing the virus to run rampant to achieve that, however, is that allowing that many exposures could also lead to countless complications and deaths worldwide – especially among the most vulnerable.
The herd immunity idea was a strategy of the Swedish government to neutralize Covid-19. In the early stage of the pandemic, the concept was also floated by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a way to reduce transmission.
Both governments have since tempered their support for the strategy. But that hasn’t stopped the topic from permeating social media.
As for “culling,” this has several meanings. Culling fruits means throwing out damaged pieces before the quality ones are shipped to the store – or thinning fruit trees to maximize their crops. Culling in terms of animal populations — humans, for instance — entails hunting or slaughtering the weaker or sick animals to reduce herd numbers.
It feels like I’m starting to see that word more and more on social media. But for people like me, letting the virus run rampant in the hope of building herd immunity is scary and cruel.
The country is clearly divided. Many of the pro-Trump base are treating a potentially lethal virus not as science but as a political concoction of the left. Some also don’t believe in wearing masks and reject social distancing.
In a society that has always honored and been oddly enamored of youth and the young, it is not surprising that older folks are deemed disposable by some. But I’m in my 60s and I’m still vibrant. I enjoy working with clients to help them achieve their goals. I’d like to be around to see my kids’ marriages and continue to help mentor their careers. I want to hold grandchildren and play with Walter, my grand-dog.
The folks who are my age and older will be more vulnerable to exposure as society re-opens. College and school students could spread the virus even as they are better able to shake it off. For us, our pre-lockdown pleasures will be a distant memory while we feel our only option is to stay inside and pray for a cure. A doctor friend of mine says it is simply Darwinism and that only the strong will survive. A religious friend says it is biblical.
I’m not expecting to be able to return to the New York City that I love for its energy, its museums, and because I was born here and raised my children here. Without any treatment or vaccine, I fear that, as activity returns, I will only be able to wait in my apartment and go out alone in a disinfected elevator so I can walk around the block.
We must be aware that this might be the next phase in our nightmare. Other societies honor their elders. Ours needs to stop using callous phrases about culling them.