Denial of care to the vulnerable should never be an option

We cannot afford to turn our back on anyone. Photo by Luis Melendez on Unsplash

Are we putting too much trust into assuming we are doing everything we can in this global COVID-19 crisis? Our society and our politicians are resorting to a narrative of human sacrifice far too easily. This type of discussion could even lead us to the horrors of pseudo-Darwinism.

Health workers are committed to saving lives. And yet, reports have started to trickle in about guidelines that should help medical professionals make difficult decisions about whom not to treat if there is a deficit of beds, ventilators, staff, or other resources.

As a consequence, the wider discussion about possible medical rationing during the COVID-19 epidemic is dominated by the pursuit of an acceptable protocol for priority or denial of care. This suggests a dangerous defeatism, as though efficiently allocating our limited resources is the only option left.

In all these deliberations, shortage is taken as a given. Thinking within the parameters of scarcity sets artificial boundaries to our imagination. We run the risk of trapping ourselves in a paradigm of helplessness.

Surely, we can do more. In all these deliberations, shortage is taken as a given. Thinking within the parameters of scarcity sets artificial boundaries to our imagination. We run the risk of trapping ourselves in a paradigm of helplessness.

The looming collapse of the health system is presented as a natural event, a “tidal wave” that looks like the exponential mortality curves in those terrifying graphs we have all suddenly become experts at reading. It suggests a resignation to the idea that not everyone might be helped in the future. The price is paid by the vulnerable. It is being decided for them, even if reluctantly, that they will be the cannon fodder in the front line.

Speaking of war metaphors, politicians have been using a lot of these lately. But there has been very little fighting and a lot of bunker-digging: most of us are sitting inside, waiting for the storm to blow over.

Meanwhile, there is another, just as vital, side missing to the war rhetoric: the involvement of ‘The People’. Where are today’s volunteer nurses and Rosie the Riveters? Why are people not drafted into an army against this invisible enemy and trained for a few days to perform tasks that will take the pressure off hospital staff? There is certainly no shortage here: people have demonstrated en masse their eagerness to help, as volunteers, as well as through grassroots initiatives producing medical apparel. We have to critically look at our governments and press them with this question: are we doing everything we can to harness all this human power and put it to good use?

If governments can shut down the entire economy, why can they not requisition every suitable factory to produce ventilators, protective gear, hospital beds and inflatable field hospital buildings? Until seven weeks ago, we were inundated with a seemingly infinite flood of fast fashion and disposable gadgets. Could not even a fraction of this productive capacity be dedicated to the creation of all the medical products we desperately need right now?

Is this naïve? Possibly.

I invite you to argue with me, to outline the complexities that will make such large-scale, community-based initiatives impossible to execute. From the momentum generated by such a discussion, creative solutions may arise. But sacrificing the vulnerable people in our society — even if only potentially, on paper — ought never be an option. We should not even be allowed to think it.

We can fly spaceships to Mars and have robots operate on our brains. Are we not an advanced enough society to solve an epidemic without human sacrifice?

Instead of simply locking people up in their houses and using that as a mirage of decisiveness, governments should prioritise one thing and one thing only: stop the health system from collapsing by expanding it. By addition, that is by involving every healthy and available man and woman, not by subtracting a cohort of “expendable” people from the equation! What an utterly crude solution the latter is — like throwing people off a ship so it will not sink so quickly, rather than using all available human power to patch up the hole.

We can fly spaceships to Mars and have robots operate on our brains. Are we not an advanced enough society to solve an epidemic without human sacrifice?

Here is an opportunity to show what we can achieve as a community — not by patiently waiting things out — but by stemming the tide with all our might.