Years from now, a comprehensive history of the global coronavirus epidemic will still not have been written. It will be forever so.
For the story is just too complex, engaging so many lives and livelihoods, inviting so much new medicine and science… that nobody will be able to pack everything into one book or TV documentary or whatever a podcast has become by 2030. We can be certain, however, that there will be those ready to throw a retrospective shawl over the virus years : it will indeed be argued that those years proved just how legitimized had become the dismissive contempt of broader society, most emphatically in the Western world, for elderly people.
The fact that C19 has had a preponderantly fatal impact over the lives of the over-65s will be the first subject of the most sedulously elaborate statistical review.
Then blame will be flung at all those who downgraded the pathology of the virus. You know the blurb : If older forks had pre-existing conditions and featherweight immune-systems then inevitably there would be more grey victims. But on any given day your average septuagenarian could not justifiably expect to live all that much longer anyway. Why were so many social and economic restrictions placed on millions of younger people who were not likely to contract the illness or, if they did, nor likely to die from it? Anyways, how many people actually walk out of their care homes – fit, moneyed and ready to resume tax-paying?
In short, the history of the coronavirus will, in many hands, be a re-ignition of the intergenerational frictions that, long before C19 was a twinkle in a Wuhanian eye, so frame and define the national conversation about how to age well, who is to pay for ageing well, what balance in public policy should be struck for the interests of those born in 1950, 1970, 1990, 2000, 2010…?
Specifically within the debate about how to age, too many voices insist that ageism is as cancerous as racism. It just seems unseemly to disagree. Such voices will regularly claim that getting older does not weaken one’s claim to jobs, careers, incomes, responsibilities at any level – and therefore it is criminal for, say, sexagenarians, to be denied access to all of life’s shared glories, to be kept away from the buffet, to be patronized for having had a good innings.
Intrinsic to this attitude lies the imperative that older people must not themselves mention their decrepit skills or the loss of their personal attractiveness (due variously to thinning scalp, hair growing thick out of one’s ears, wheezing winter cough, ugly un-veneerable teeth….). They are rather to clap themselves every day for being bald, broke, whatever… but wonderful and almost certainly victimized by somebody. No matter how much your old joke stinks, you still deserve the microphone.
But believing that you, the experienced sexa-septua-octo, are an automatic victim of social insensitivity or that you deserve more from governments and employers and life itself or that you should get extra points just for turning up and breathing (even after coronavirus is whisked down to a single petri dish…) is a psychological device to permit you to evade essential exercise.
The trouble with old age is, pace Oscar Wilde, that it can take up too many evenings. Ageing is a bigger threat than ageism. There is no sofa more seductively comfortable than the one provided in the vestibule of organised victimhood. Being old has no intrinsic value in itself.
The late Ulrich Beck was a German sociologist with some renown in the 1980s; he was famous for his concept known as the Risk Society, an inventory of all the multiple and intensifying hazards of life in an ecologically and politically unstable world. In one of his especially dense later works, he invented the term “emancipatory catastrophism”. For our purposes here, we will (in borrowing the phrase) define this as the prudential assumption that, whatever efforts one mounts, very bad things are bound to happen; this is a fundamental of the ageing life which, once we pull it to our bosoms, sets us all free, free in the sense of denuded of illusion, ready to expect whatever we can extract from the day. Ageing means being exposed to a brave new world of insult, rejection and humiliation. Ageing is the Risk Society.
The arrival and the persistence of coronavirus cuts deep into this discussion.
Stories will emerge of the gruesome choices faced by doctors and nurses and hospital administrators as they grappled with many infected patients (often elderly) and excruciatingly constrained resources. Rumors of medics incidentally directing care away from the old and to the young are likely to be proven in the times ahead. Thereafter there will be famous people to scream from the laptops that this confirms the stark lack of cultural worth afforded the older citizen. There will be those working in the UK’s NHS who will have been traumatized by the decisions that they have had to take and by the engulfing pressure they had to face every day once they put on their protections and walked into a ward. The average age of a C19 fatality is (as I write) over 65 years of age and, that said, I would – if I believed in one – thank god every night for the fact that I do not work on the front line of a National Health Service. In 2020/21, to do so must so often have been a unique edition of hell on earth.
Let’s put something obvious up front. For any society, taking care of the older, post-65 citizen can be a confusing and horrendously expensive business. It can be as cumulatively troublesome for that society at large as it can be for an individual family – as even the most well-meaning fortysomethings grapple with the truth that Pop can no longer cook safely on his own, cannot deal with strangers at the door, is not capable of managing his online bank account. A measure of social rationing is inherent in the social order prevailing in every corner of the world. Across the Western world, this reality is alive and throbbing in the market of careers, in public spending programmes, in the provision of support of those infirm (and without the possibility of medical parole). This is not going to change.
The whole point of rinklifunstadom lies in the presumption that by using all life lessons so far acquired – and with a special reference to the grim messages left by our coronavirus epoch – one can prepare in an early way that is both militaristic and humane for the octogenarian life to come. See here passim.
But no more age wars!