Abandon the old? ‘Not on my watch’

Abandon the old? ‘Not on my watch’. By Greg Sheridan.

In all the film versions of the sinking of the Titanic, and the attendant tragic loss of life, the rush to the lifeboats is a key moment. The cry is always the same: women and children first.

When it becomes clear there are not enough lifeboats for everyone, only the old and the frail among the men are invited to join the women and children. Able-bodied men are expected to stay behind and take their chances, to do what they can, but essentially to go down with the ship.

This set of actions embodies a principle several thousand years old in Western civilisation (though of course often honoured in the breach) — that the strong protect the weak.

But to listen to much of the discussion around the coronavirus response there is a new idea abroad. How dare we spend so much money, and subject the economy to so much difficulty, to save lives predominantly of people aged over 60? Although this sentiment has not informed government policy, certainly in Australia, it has featured heavily, and in some strangely unlikely sources, in the virus debate. While the virus can kill anybody, it will kill people at higher rates the older they are. Why are we spending so much money to save old folks when young folks will inherit the economic difficulties?

So, if we were to remake the Titanic in the spirit of much of the debate, we would have to rewrite the lifeboats scene. The cry would go out: the frail, the sick, the old, the lame, anyone with a pre-existing medical condition, you stay on the ship, we able-bodied young men are going into the lifeboats because we have the highest chance of survival. …

The arguments about not paying too much attention or devoting too many resources to the elderly come in two forms. One, at the macro level, is: don’t do too much because it’s only old people who will die. And the other is: if there’s any competition about resources, always put the old person last.

Variations of these views, though seldom put so crudely, are, I am sorry to say, popular in parts of the centre-right of politics, especially in the US. …

Economism can go too far. Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal in the Irish famine suggested, satirically, that the best policy would be for poor people to sell their babies to be eaten, solving overpopulation and hunger, and preventing babies from being a burden. …

Triage priorities:

In an early meeting, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy was briefing Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt and a few others on these issues, noting that some jurisdictions were operating a triage system that essentially ruled old people out of intensive care.

“That’s not happening here,”the Prime Minister said. “Not on my watch.”

“Not on my watch either!” Hunt emphatically agreed.

“I’m glad you said that,” Murphy replied, “because I didn’t want it to happen on my watch either.” …

Which governments are doing what?

All through this crisis, Morrison has tried to keep as much of the society and economy running as is consistent with suppressing the virus. It is the premiers, also undeniably working towards what they believe is the best policy, who pushed for greater shutdowns.