Prolonging Lives v. Wasted Futures? The 'Covidism' Dilemma
Are the lives of the youth impacted by coronavirus restrictions worth less than the extended lives of the elderly? This is the debate we must have when faced with the prospect of another lockdown.
The prospect of life in a cycle of lockdowns, curfews, quarantines, masks, antibacterial gel and social distancing is now indefinite. There will be vaccines, but there will also be new variants, new challenges and we will be under new means of surveillance, such as the dystopian "vaccine passport" that has been proposed. COVID-19 has tipped the world into a permanent state of emergency.
Why, and for whom, are we giving ourselves so much trouble? This is a question that inevitably arises for young working people. Among my age group (15-44 years old), the number of patients who have died without prior existing conditions since the beginning of the pandemic in France is 60, according to the latest epidemiological report by Public Health France (a figure that is surprisingly little quoted in government speeches). This compares to more than 10,000 cardiac arrests and more than 20,000 strokes in the same population category over the same period.
Even if it is always possible to be part of this statistical margin of error, COVID-19 is therefore by no means a risk that I should be overly concerned about, to be purely selfish about it.
"It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger," writes David Hume in his "A Treatise on Human Nature." Is it then contrary to reason to prefer an aperitif to the survival of our elders, and if so, why?
We never save lives, we only prolong them.
The way this question is being asked today produces an obvious answer. Slowing down the economy to save lives: who can be against it? Doctors, who, in the absence of parliamentary control, now make public health policy, are doing their job by demanding the strictest possible control measures. They are faithful to their Hippocratic oath, thus updated by the Order of Physicians: "My first concern is to restore, preserve or promote health."
Nevertheless, the same question can be asked in other words. First of all, we never save lives, we only prolong them: We are all condemned to death, as Camus' Caligula shouts with desperate jubilation. Which lives are prolonged and by how many years? According to Santé Publique France, the median age of COVID-19 victims is 85, slightly higher than the median age of death in France. In other words, most of those whose death is prevented by the restrictions already belong to the minority of survivors of their generation.
According to Santé Publique France, the median age of COVID-19 victims is 85 — Photo: Jon Tyson
Moreover, we are not just slowing down the economy: we are actively wasting other lives. These are lives lost for lack of conventional medical examinations and care or as a result of suicides, the "wave" of which could still be yet to come, according to a study by the Foundation Jean-Jaurès. Not to mention the broken lives of bar owners, artists or small shopkeepers unable to work for months at a time or the zombie lives of students stuck in front of their screens, kids hidden behind masks all day at school. These are lives that have long been darkened, the lives of all of us, because we can no longer dance without being considered to be delinquents, have a drink without a waiver or shake hands without suffering public scorn.
This leads to a very different equation, with two variables of the same nature: extended life time versus wasted life time; years gained from death versus years lost to life. These should be precisely quantified and the question of hospital overcrowding should be integrated into this equation, to open an informed debate. Only then will we be able to make a decision that will be political this time – no longer medical.
What we can conclude is that the collective choice in this dilemma reflects the moral health of a society. Between 1968 and 1970, a global pandemic, the Hong Kong flu, killed more than a million people, including several tens of thousands in France. It also affected mainly the elderly. The figures are more modest than for the coronavirus, but the orders of magnitude are comparable. Was it decided to cancel the festivals? Quite the opposite: There was Woodstock, with half a million hippies crammed shirtless in the American Catskills. What do we remember about the late 1960s? Free love and counterculture. Then, society decided to focus on its youth.
Today, the Woodstock generation is among the at-risk people we protect by sacrificing our daily lives. What does this say about our society?