The Elderly: Unworthy of Life?

April 26, 2020

Probably the single most sinister term in the Nazi lexicon was lebensunwertes Leben, “life unworthy of life.” It was the label worn by the hundreds of thousands of little children and adults murdered by the SS because of some physical or mental disability. Included were elderly people suffering from dementia.

We should recognize a similar, semi-genocidal logic at work in the willingness of right-wing leaders to sacrifice the aged for sake of business. A month ago, Trump’s favorite quack physician, Dr. Mehmet Oz, told Sean Hannity on Fox that reopening schools “may only cost us two to three percent in terms of total mortality,” a “trade-off some folks would consider.”

He was echoing Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick who had suggested to Tucker Carlson that “lots of grandparents” were willing to die in order to save the economy. Later he reiterated that “nobody wants to die. But man, we gotta take some risks to get back in the game and get this country back up and running.”

Across the Atlantic, Boris Johnson’s éminence grise, Dominic Cummings, was advocating the same chilling idea. According to The Sunday Times, Cummings told a private gathering in March that the government’s goals were “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.” He and Johnson were apparently emboldened in their laissez faire approach by early advice from the government’s super-secretive Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that supported the herd-immunity idea, despite the absence of any data about whether or not catching the virus conferred any long-term immunity.

In both cases the principle of profits over lives has been translated into policy. In the UK, the pandemic was deliberately allowed to run amok for more than a month, until exploding death rates forced the government to reluctantly impose stay-at-home orders. In this country, a president who simultaneously claims absolute power but no responsibility refused to mobilize federal resources to save sick, elderly people imprisoned within a private nursing home system that has long been a national scandal for its health violations, understaffing and unpreparedness to deal with infectious disease outbreaks.

This week the Washington Post reported that COVID-19 is present in one out of ten nursing homes and has so far killed 10,000 residents and workers. No “flattening of the curve” has happened and the numbers will continue to soar. In Western Europe it is estimated that up to half of all deaths have occurred in long-term care facilities and rest homes.

Meanwhile, the so-called “anti-quarantine” movement, financed by billionaire Trump supporters such as hedge-fund magnate Robert Mercer, wants to send Americans back to work without protective gear or preliminary testing. There are 35 million people in the work force over 55; more than 10 million over 65. For thousands of them this will be a virtual death sentence.

Since the majority of elderly, non-working people live with relatives under conditions that make self-isolation and social distancing impossible within the family, their vulnerability will also increase as other members return to work and bring back infections. This is especially true for multi-generational Black, Latino, and Asian-Pacific families.

Many elderly Republicans may eventually come to realize that their hero in the White House is murdering them, but while waiting for the penny to drop the massacre will continue. A Nazi mentality is at work and we need to call it out for what it is.


For more on this subject, see Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s “Ageist ‘Triage’ Is a Crime Against Humanity.”


Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Late Victorian Holocausts, Buda’s WagonPlanet of Slums, and, most recently, Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the  Sixties (with Jon Wiener). He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. He lives in San Diego.