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A callous concept for Covid-19 control

The promotion of herd immunity is ageist and borders on euthanasia

The coronavirus pandemic keeps throwing up unusual reactions. The most politically extreme have, of course, emerged from the US and the UK. One or two are clearly ageist and even border on the promotion of euthanasia.
A press briefing by the UK Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty and a government science adviser Dr David Halpern was the first sign of warped thinking. They indicated that the government’s strategy was to allow the virus to pass through the population, to allow individuals to “acquire herd immunity” at a delayed speed, while vulnerable groups were “cocooning”.
As we know, herd immunity is a phrase normally used when large numbers of children have been vaccinated against a disease like measles, reducing the chances that others will get it. As a tactic in fighting a pandemic for which there is no vaccine, it is highly questionable. And the linkage of herd immunity with cocooning is irresponsible.
Allowing a population to build up immunity in this way — rather than through testing, tracking down the contacts of every case and isolating them — increases the risk to the most vulnerable: Older people with underlying health problems. To reach herd immunity would require about 60-to-70 per cent of the population to become ill with coronavirus. With high mortality rates in older people, such a policy is ageist and borders on involuntary euthanasia.
Combined with the broadly-used term of ‘underlying health condition’, it’s not surprising that many of us of a certain age are feeling a bit windy. Let’s face it: If there’s a queue for ventilators, we aren’t going to be at the top of that particular line.
Which makes the efforts of groups such as the Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing even more important. Prof Rose Anne Kenny and her colleagues in Trinity College and St James’s Hospital spoke recently about how people over the age of 70 are “the fabric of their community”.
TILDA, of which Prof Kenny is the principal investigator, has released research showing that 31 per cent of adults aged over 70 provide help and care for their spouses, relatives — apart from grandchildren — neighbours and friends. This help takes two forms: Most provide help with household chores for their relatives, friends and neighbours; others provide vital care with basic activities of daily living. These include assistance with bathing, dressing, eating and toileting. The majority (65 per cent) of those aged over 70 who report being a care-giver have assumed that role in the last five years. Thirty-eight per cent are caring for a spouse; 55 per cent for another relative; and the remainder for friends and neighbours.
Some 60 per cent enjoy regular social and leisure activities as people aged over 70 continue to lead active lives. Activities include going to films, plays or concerts; attending classes or lectures; playing cards, bingo, games in general; going to the pub; eating out of the house; and taking part in sports activities.
“This data highlights the enormous contribution that older persons make to society in Ireland and to the economic fabric of Ireland, including enabling others to take part in the workforce through their volunteering and caring,” Prof Kenny says. “The Irish people and policy-makers should have a huge appreciation and greatly value this role which assists the Irish people and the Irish economy.”
“Many recent discussions taking place publicly are forming a narrative which describes our older population as being somewhat dependant on others, living closeted lives. Others suggest that the majority are unwell and therefore require much care and confinement indoors. On the contrary, the findings of the report from the TILDA study underscore the vibrant and important contribution that over-70s make to society in Ireland.”
Coming at a time when unsupported judgements are being made about the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on our older population, this is the kind of evidence that needs to get out there.
Just because there are progressive restrictions on social engagements and the possibility of the advancement of social isolation for this age group, that does not open the floodgates to a nasty ageist agenda.
It’s something Boris Johnson, if he is serious about his Churchillian credentials, needs to take on board. As for POTUS, I’m afraid messaging consistency is such an alien concept to him that screening-out his pronouncements is our only option.

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