Unpacking the Sausage: COVID has broken our ethics

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Can you think of anyone in the world who you would describe as “unworthy of life?” If so, what kind of emotional response does that evoke for you? Is it contempt? Is it pity? 

What is a person who is “unworthy of life” like? Are they someone you find politically disagreeable? Do they have views that are simply too hateful or contrary to yours to be tolerable? Are they someone who has done horrible things in their time on earth?

Are they someone who is perhaps very close to death already? How close? How do you know?

Bre KidmanI’m not talking about assisted suicide or people who have chosen to end their own lives. I’m talking about the way one human being can feel so certain in their beliefs that they feel comfortable deciding who deserves to live or die. To look at another person, make a judgment as to the contents and quality of their life, and determine it to be so lacking in value that the world is better without them requires a level of confidence — or ignorance — beyond anything I can imagine. The only way that makes sense is you develop the callus so slowly you don’t even realize it’s happening — at first.

To be fair, oncologist Zeke Emanuel, a former COVID adviser for President Biden, isn’t necessarily suggesting anyone be killed. He just re-tweeted a 2014 article he wrote soft-floating the idea that people over the age of 75 aren’t worth the cost of their medical care because “(living too long) leaves most of us debilitated and unable to contribute to society.” 

Interestingly, his next tweet was about how as many as 71 percent of people with long COVID were unable to work for over six months, experiencing “debilitating” effects.

I wonder how this renowned medical ethicist squares that philosophy with history. He’s probably a lot smarter than me. 

It’s probably just a me problem that all I can picture when I hear someone claiming certain people are unworthy of care is the mass sterilization and euthanasia of the Third Reich, right? I mean, Emanuel isn’t talking about gas chambers or firing squads. Then again, neither were the Nazis. At first. 

In 1939, the Nazis knew the idea of murdering sick children would play pretty poorly, so they engaged in a course of deception. Hitler signed secret orders protecting participating institutions from being prosecuted for engaging in euthanasia. Parents were told their children were being taken to advanced care centers, where they soon died of pneumonia or some other fabricated complication. In actuality, the children were “put to sleep” by lethal injection — at first. 

After the initial murder of children slid through without too much trouble, the Nazis moved on to killing disabled adults and shooting up Polish asylums to empty them out. There were so many people to kill that they needed a faster, more cost-effective way to kill than bullets. Then came the gas chambers.

Overcrowded hospitals needed to be emptied out for soldiers — after all, there was a war on. Anyone who was chronically ill or who had been in the hospital for too long was killed, for efficiency’s sake. By 1940, anyone who was Jewish in a German institution was killed.

By 1941, the program had attracted enough public outrage to be officially discontinued but, of course, there are many ways to kill institutionalized people without gas chambers. By summer 1942, lethal injections had resumed with a twist of systematic starvation for extra cost-savings. By then, geriatric patients, bombing victims and migrant workers had made the list of those unworthy of keeping alive.

I know Godwin’s law makes comparisons to Nazis sort of cliché and boring. I don’t mean to be dramatic. I guess I just wonder what it would be like to be a fly on the wall in these public health messaging meetings. I try not to assume malice where ignorance would suffice, but morbid curiosity makes me wonder if people hear things like “life unworthy of life” in between their own words and don’t realize that’s the callus beginning to form. 

It is interesting how quickly the messaging shifted, though. In fewer than three years — with no real slowdown in deaths — public health went from “we’re all in this together” to “don’t worry, it’s only old and sick people dying of COVID” to. . . “living too long is bad, actually?”

Maybe it’s just our skins getting thicker. At this rate, Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” will be getting a reboot any day now.

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].

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