Underlying health conditions? That’s almost all of us

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At the daily press conferences in NSW, deaths are parenthesised by age and “underlying health conditions”. We are being indoctrinated into believing that these deaths are happening not to healthy young people – the economically productive, important, “valuable” members of society – but rather to the old, the weak, the infirm.

The dead wood, in other words, for whom it would be crazy to jeopardise the success of the economy, or even interrupt people’s pleasure-seeking. We would expect them to die soon anyway, COVID or no COVID.

The daily NSW briefings refer to “underlying health conditions” when discussing COVID-19 deaths. Credit:James Brickwood

The Scandinavians, living by forest metaphors, categorise these people as “dry tinder”, that fragile underbrush accumulated on the forest floor and ready to combust, waiting only on the inevitable spark. The narrative is compelling in its implied imagery and quasi-Darwinistic simplicity: a powerful battalion marches forward, its muscular forearms and resolute jaws redolent of the factory worker on a 1950s Soviet poster.

Producing, living, loving – these are the people charged with fulfilling the social and biological destiny of mankind. Of course, they can carry the infirm and the old to an extent – they are not heartless, after all – but only to an extent. As soon as the burden starts to impinge too much on the progress of the Great March Forward, it is time to shed sentimentality and with it those unproductive elements that hold “us” back.

But who, really, is “us”? As I write, I sit opposite the 20-year-old girlfriend of my middle son. She is an impressive young woman. In challenging family circumstances, she had an early departure from school, but went on to complete an apprenticeship in wooden boat building. She rose to high rank in the air cadets and now holds down a responsible job in cyber security while studying for a full-time degree in that same subject. She is insightful, funny and kind and is planning to go on to study medicine. She is also an extremely brittle Type 1 diabetic, since infancy on an insulin pump.

She has had frequent hospital admissions with diabetic ketoacidosis and suffers a number of diabetic complications. Rest assured, however, that if she should catch COVID and die she would be compartmentalised at the daily press conference as “a 20-year-old woman with underlying health conditions”. The fact is that one in two Australians has at least one chronic condition and more than one in five of us are over sixty, so it is a nifty trick to get us to believe that these people are all somehow “other”. They are not, they are us, and we are all of inestimable value.

It is a further cynical fiction that soon the rest of “us” will be able to circulate like vaccinated super-beings, impervious to the virus as it scythes down the weak, the infirm, the old. The examples of Israel and other highly vaccinated countries, which are reimposing restrictions hand over fist, show this to be blatantly untrue. But it is a fiction that well serves those like Jayne Hrdlicka, the Virgin Australia chief executive, and the 80 signatories of the Business Council of Australia letter, who urge “opening up for the sake of the economy”. If we put aside that this is a factually incorrect position, as the best performing economies have uniformly been those that have opted for eliminating COVID, we are still left asking “what exactly is the economy” and “precisely whose benefit is being served here”?

In a way, “the economy” is really code for movement, the continual displacement of people and things for the purposes of creating profit. Restricting movement – the most powerful weapon against any novel pathogen – impedes the efficient creation of profit. By convincing the bulk of the herd that it is only the weaker animals at the edge that will be picked off by predators, the bulk continues on. No matter that this is not true and that it is a swathe of the bulk itself that is eliminated: population growth will soon fix that in a few years. The essential thing is to keep the herd moving.

Several decades of libertarian political philosophy have resulted in the partial destruction of the idea of collective fates and collective action. All that matters is the individual, who is mendaciously instructed they must keep moving and abandon the weak for the sake of “the economy”, a construct whose purpose increasingly appears to be to deliver excessive profit to fewer and fewer oligarchs.

David Berger is an emergency doctor in northern Australia.

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