The Coronavirus and Ageism

The Coronavirus has severely affected the United States, and the world in general. However, one population that has been particularly affected by this horrid pandemic is the 65+ population, for about 8 in 10 Americans killed by COVID-19 thus far have been 65 and older.[1]

One would hope for a compassionate response to this fact, a response that tries to make sure that the populations that seem most vulnerable (older persons as well as the immunocompromised) are taken care of. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case; instead, some have responded with something along the lines of “oh, it’s just old people.” There are several issues with this “it’s just old people” response:

  • Such comments come across as if older persons are not of as much value as the rest of us and are therefore not worth saving as much as everyone else is.
  • Such comments are also, in a way, attacking our future selves—many of us may end up being older persons at some point, so devaluing older persons is in a way devaluing some of our future selves.
  • Such comments are also attacking of some of our family members. You know what? If you’re saying “it’s just old people” and you have family or friends who are over the age of 65, you are, de facto, attacking those family members or friends.
  • While the virus has disproportionately affected older persons, it’s not just old people dying of the virus. Younger persons, including and especially those who are immunocompromised, have also been seriously affected by the virus, and in some cases, killed. I wrote about one such person—a family friend—in my most recent COVID update post.

If we are to rid ourselves of this “it’s just old people” sort of attitude, we will need to completely change our mindset in terms of how much the lives of older persons matter. In my observations, at least, this issue with how much many people in our society value the lives of older persons dates back to long before COVID. The pandemic may have heightened our awareness of this issue, but the issue did not start with the pandemic.

As to how we go about changing those perceptions, I’m not completely sure, but addressing a couple of problems may help address the “it’s just old people” attitude:

  1. There can be this attitude of “such-and-such old person will die soon anyway, so there’s no need to worry” (an attitude that I know my mom’s mother, who is in her nineties, has experienced herself since before the pandemic). With many people living to their eighties, nineties, and even sometimes over 100 years old, the assumption that a person will die soon is in some cases a mistaken assumption. Even if it’s not a mistaken assumption, it is vital to make someone’s quality of life as good as it can possibly be while they are on this earth.
  2. Who matters most, at least in the United States, feels like it is often tied to who is making the most money. As the overwhelming majority of those 65 and older in the United States are not employed or looking for work,[2] the non-working older population is less likely to be viewed as being of value as the rest of the population. A key here might be to realize that someone need not make lots of money to be of value of society.

Regardless of the source of the “it’s just old people” mentality, it is a mentality that needs to be gotten rid of, for the sake of older persons and the pandemic as a whole. People’s lives may very well count on a shift of attitude towards older persons.



Scapegoating Groups During a Crisis is Nothing New

I live in New York City, where in recent weeks there have been some absolutely horrid hate crimes against people of Asian descent. This is happening in a year when hate crimes against people of Asian descent are on the rise, as well.[1] These hate crimes are disgusting and uncalled for, and such hate crimes cannot be condemned strongly enough.

However, it is not enough to condemn the hate crimes. Instead, we should look at the root cause of them: anti-Asian sentiment related to COVID-19. More specifically, anti-Asian sentiment tied to the gravely mistaken idea that since the virus originated in Asia, people who look Asian are the cause of everything wrong with the situation in the United States (and around the world, for that matter) for the past year. Given that gravely mistaken, yet widespread, idea, it is no wonder that so many Asians have been victims of hate crimes in the United States.

Looking at the big picture, though, hate crimes against Asians during COVID-19 is actually the latest manifestation of a problem we seem to run into in the United States time and time again: if certain people of a particular ethnicity or religion are viewed as causing a crisis, then all too often everyone of that ethnicity or religion is scapegoated to the point of hate and violence.

Here are a few examples of this happening in the past century:

  • In World War I, there was an outbreak of anti-German sentiment that targeted German immigrants, German-Americans, and even the German language. There was a great deal of suspicion about the loyalties of anyone German-related during this time period.[2] All of this was the result of Germany being a foe of the United States in that war.
  • In World War II, people of Japanese descent were moved to internment camps by the United States, once again because of questions and doubts over the loyalties of people of Japanese descent.[3] All of this was a result of Japan being a foe of the United States in that war.
  • After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslims and Sikhs were frequent targets of hate crimes—Muslims for being perceived as being like the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11, and Sikhs for being perceived as being Muslim (because of the turbans Sikh men wear). Some of these crimes happened in my neighborhood in Queens. All of this was the result of a group of Muslims attacking the United States on September 11, 2001.

And now, yet again, people of a particular group are being scapegoated, in the form of people of Asian descent being scapegoated to the point of hate crimes as a result of COVID-19.

Sometimes, history does repeat itself in bad ways.

But what are the implications of the fact that this history does repeat itself in bad ways?

At a personal level, I think it reminds us that this is not a new phenomenon—that of scapegoating groups perceived as being the cause of our problems. It is an issue that has existed for many years, even before many of us were born, and what we see now is the latest manifestation of that old phenomenon.

For policymakers, a start would be to not have rhetoric and/or actions that further fan flames that result in the scapegoating of certain groups. Former President Donald Trump’s calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” could be cited as an example of this problem, but Trump is far from being the only major leader to have made this mistake. For example, the way President Woodrow Wilson spoke unapprovingly of “hyphenated Americans” did not help the cause of German-Americans during World War I,[4] and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Japanese internment camps did not help the cause of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This is not to say that the current situation for people of Asian descent would be perfect if Former President Trump had no “China Virus” rhetoric, but words and/or actions like those certainly do not help. More needs to be done than simply our leadership avoiding the scapegoating themselves, but it’s a start.

Unfortunately, history has repeated itself. However, what we can do is learn from our dealing with hate crimes against people of Asian descent and strive to be better in the future.





On Using Friends as a Defense Against One’s Own Prejudice

“I’m not racist. I have Black friends.”

“How can you possibly suggest that I’m homophobic? I have a lesbian friend.”

When some of us feel that we are accused of being prejudiced, we can give a response along these lines. We defend ourselves against the accusation of prejudice (whether real or perceived) by pointing out that we have a friend or friends who are of the race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, etc., that we are accused of being prejudicial toward.

This language does one thing: it uses the people you call friends as a defense against an accusation of prejudice, often without the permission of said friend or friends. This is problematic on a number of levels.

For starters, the friend(s) you’re using as a defense often have no say in whether they are actually okay with being talked about and used in such a way. Given that fact, it is unfair to put friends in the middle of a controversy surrounding your potential prejudice. Your friends didn’t do anything to merit being in the middle of a controversy of yours, so the right and compassionate thing to do is to, well, not put your friends in the middle of one of your controversies.

Even if said friend(s) were okay with being talked about in that way, the “I’m not racist” or “I’m not anti-Semitic”, comments don’t do anything to address the form of prejudice being talked about. Saying that you’re not a racist usually does nothing about the racism that does exist in our society. Saying that you’re not sexist does nothing about the sexism that does exist in our society. All it does is attempt to convince yourself or others that you are not prejudiced in a particular way.

If anything, the “I’m not ____” comments are sometimes used to defend a word, phrase, or action that is prejudiced. I’ve read people say that that “most Blacks are lazy” (not making this up), an overtly racist comment, and then defend their racism by saying that they have friends of color. I haven’t seen this happen in my conversations too often, thankfully, but when it has happened, it has been disgusting.

Finally, your friends are a poor defense against prejudice because you can have friends of a particular group and be prejudiced toward said group at the same time. Albeit, if you’re prejudiced towards a group that a friend is a part of (for example, if you struggle with ableism and your friend is physically disabled), then that likely hinders your ability to be a good friend.

All in all, I would strongly recommend against using your friends as a defense against accusations of prejudice. It does no favors to you, your friend, or the cause of reducing prejudice in our world. You’re better off responding to those accusations, whether real or perceived, with self-reflection,[1] signing petitions, and/or donating to causes that address the prejudice you’re accused of.

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[1] Sometimes, with self-reflection, you might realize that something you didn’t realize sounded offensive to you was offensive to those around you.