That’s not exactly how these experts put it, but that’s what they mean. The CDC is very clear about the age‐related dangers of COVID-19: “people in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s. Similarly, people in their 60s or 70s are, in general, at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s. The greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older.” Eight in 10 COVID-19 deaths are of people 65 and older. Those over 85 infected are 13 times as likely to be hospitalized and 630 times as likely to die as those between 18 and 29. (At least I’m only four and 30 times the norm, respectively!)
But never mind the medical threat stalking the elderly, argue some commentators. Dr. Peter Szilagyi told the New York Times that ethics “clearly favors the essential worker group because of the high proportion of minority, low‐income and low‐education workers among essential workers.” Similar was the position of Dr. Harald Schmidt of the University of Pennsylvania. “Older populations are whiter,” he argued. “Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.”
Immunizing first those most at risk of dying hardly seems to be “giving additional health benefits” to someone. Notably, neither of these members of the “let the elderly die” caucus argue that favoring the vulnerably aged is somehow intended to discriminate. Rather, they are bothered because this strategy simply saves too many white people. The medical and ethical arguments favoring the elderly don’t matter because too many of them are white. Wow.
It is an especially bizarre stance since favoring essential workers over office and home workers — including politicians, policy geeks, financiers, writers, attorneys, accountants, PR mavens, consultants, and assorted other normally high prestige professionals — is probably favoring, for good reason, people of color. Front line service workers may have been the greatest economic victims of the pandemic, but they were not the greatest medical victims, since the elderly die in much greater numbers. Advocating that race trump vulnerability is simple racism.
Yet for similar reasons, Marc Lipsitch of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health criticized proposals to immunize teachers early: “Teachers have middle‐class salaries, are very often white, and they have college degrees.” Lipsitch added, “Of course they should be treated better, but they are not among the most mistreated of workers.”
What does any of this have to do with prioritizing vaccinations? Teachers play a vital role in children’s education, which will have long‐term consequences for our entire society. One could still argue that more traditional service workers should go first, but what does being white and college‐educated have to do with the argument? Lipsitch appears to believe that teachers should be ranked lower because they are white and college‐educated. It isn’t just bad to be white and elderly. It is bad to be white and college‐educated as well. You’ll go toward, if not exactly to, the back of the line.
Some progressives like teachers, at least. Elise Gould of the leftish Economic Policy Institute contended that protecting teachers helped minority workers most: “When you talk about disproportionate impact and you’re concerned about people getting back into the labor force, many are mothers, and they will have a harder time if their children don’t have a reliable place to go.” Moreover, added Gould, “if you think generally about people who have jobs where they can’t telework, they are disproportionately Black and brown. They’ll have more of a challenge when child care is an issue.”
Even some labor representatives of essential workers advocate putting the elderly first, seemingly unconcerned about racial politics. For instance, Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, opined: “Here’s the thing: Everybody’s got a grandmother or grandfather.” In his view, “I do believe almost everybody in this country would want to protect them, or their aging parents.” Which is the most logical position for governments local, state, and federal to take.
America may never escape its legacy of slavery, which continues to taint the nation’s political and civic life. And there are tough issues about how best to respond to the impacts that live on today. But letting the elderly die is neither moral nor practical. It is immoral because it is a deadly form of racism, consciously harming people because of their race. It is impractical because it cannot be explained and sold to most Americans. While a radical fringe might desire to make vaccination about race, most people, irrespective of ideology, are more likely to favor saving lives, especially since the lives saved could be of their parents or grandparents.
Americans should focus on conquering COVID-19 and extirpating the pandemic, which begins with preventing needless deaths. And that, not implementing the latest bizarre PC theory, should be the priority today. After protecting everyone, we can go back to arguing about politics. Including, inevitably, the role of race and what to do about it in the future.