JOHN CARLIN. Discrimination and Inequality

May 29, 2020

The Covid-19 virus discriminates against the old. The young are hardly affected. The lockdowns around the world required everyone to live in a cage, young and old. Now that the restrictions are being relaxed, it is inevitable that governments are going to have to discriminate in the same way the virus does – against the old who will be the ones who need the confinement to protect their health, not the young who need jobs and a future.

Life is beginning to change here in Europe. The mood is improving. We are moving from the zoo phase to the safari phase. After two months in a cage, our sphere of movement has expanded. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Time will tell if the coronavirus recedes and weakens or if it is preparing another offensive, perhaps in October, as many scientists predict.

There are reasons to be confident that we will be in a better position to repel the siege. With all the accumulated information, doctors will have a better idea of working out which patients will benefit from what treatments. However, a vaccine available to everyone is a long way off.

Doctors and scientific researchers are having a tough time, but their aim is clear. They are doing everything that human knowledge allows to prevent people from dying.

The role of governments is more complicated. The medical factor is not the only one to take into account. There are also moral and economic questions. Governments have to balance at least three factors: saving all possible lives from the aggression of the virus; ensuring that their medical systems remain viable; and avoiding the destruction of the economy, which also means saving lives.

Assuming that the first two factors are handled better than when the virus attack took us by surprise, the big question will be whether the main strategy will be to resort once again to mass house arrest.

Will governments ask again for the spirit of solidarity required of the entire population during this first viral invasion? The catchcry has been that if some suffer, we all have to suffer. If some of us are vulnerable to the virus, everyone, even those who are not, will share the consequences. We will all lock ourselves up at home equally. There will be no discrimination.

The problem is that the virus does discriminate. And thank goodness it does. If it killed children and young people at the same rate as older people and those with certain previous illnesses, this would indeed be the modern version of the bubonic plague. Humanity would be at risk of extinction. This virus is unfair, but it is not nearly as bad as others. It affects a small sector of the population. The understandable and perhaps scientifically sound strategy so far has been to make everyone suffer.

The same plan can hardly be followed if the virus continues the siege for four or five years, as the WHO advises, before it can be sent back to its home in the liver of a Chinese bat. If the same strategy of mass confinement is repeated until the happy day of liberation, we will be condemning one or two generations to ruin, and we will be destroying a way of life alien to the concept of distancing. Homo sapiens is a social animal and more so in Latin countries.

Governments know the danger they are in because they have more data than their citizens. And they know, better than we do, the actual numbers of those affected by the virus. They know that there is a huge disproportion between the damage that the virus can cause to people over 70 and under, say, 50. And they must know, even if it hurts to admit it, that they will have to discriminate if they are to avoid the maximum possible number of deaths and only destroy the minimum number of lives.

The sacrifice of confinement will have to be distributed unevenly, not according to gender or skin colour, but according to age.

The position of governments is complicated because the words “discrimination” and “inequality” have awful connotations. They are going to have to show a lot of courage in taking the bull by the horns. There are some things that might help them.

What things? Two possibilities. The first, a referendum, a useful resource when governments feel they lack the authority to choose the way forward. In this case, the referendum would not be held with the participation of all. It would discriminate. It would be limited to the sector of the population most vulnerable to the virus, the older people. The exact age of those who could vote could be discussed but it could be, for example, those over 70. The question would be something like: would you be willing to submit to confinement in exchange for the rest of the population being able to regain their freedom, their future and their lives?

If, say, two-thirds of the elderly say yes, the government frees itself from the moral burden of being the one depriving them of their freedom. If a clear majority answers no, then the government is still in a dilemma, but it would be less difficult for them to say to young people: “Bad luck, guys: you’re stuffed.”

OK. A referendum is a lot to ask. But if not a referendum the other possibility would be that grandparents made common cause voluntarily and raised their voices in favour of their children and grandchildren. They could form an oldies’ front and declare, “Not in my name!” This was the title of an article written by a Spanish blogger named Carlos González. He describes himself as a “grandfather, paediatrician and writer,” and wrote on 27 April that he felt ashamed after some 40 days of confinement.

“If they had proposed to me, as a kind of pact with the devil: ‘if you lock up your grandson for a month and a half, I will extend your life in a few years’, I would never have accepted it …” And now, grandson, I ask your forgiveness . It was I who had to face any danger to save you, and we did it the other way around. Without thinking, I agreed to give up freedom in exchange for security; the only security was mine, but the freedom was yours.”

Some will say that Dr. González errs on the side of being simplistic. But he is right. There has already been discrimination, inequality and injustice. In favour of the old. It is good to take care of old people. It is also good to take care of young people. When the virus returns loaded with all its artillery, it will be necessary to think about discriminating again. But this time the other way around.

John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. He writes regular columns for La Vanguardia (Spain) and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín on 16 May 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell,


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