At 56, right-wing radio host Glenn Beck said in his Tuesday broadcast, "I'm in the danger zone," meaning he would be especially at risk of serious illness or death if he contracted the novel coronavirus. But "I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working, even if we all get sick," Beck continued. "I would rather die than kill the country. 'Cause it's not the economy that's dying. It's the country."
Beck is not the only older person to suggest something like this in recent days. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) made similar remarks Monday night on Fox News. "No one reached out to me and said, 'As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?'" said Patrick, who is 69. "If that's the exchange, I'm all in." And writing at First Things, editor R.R. Reno, aged 61, denounced "the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost," arguing that other (especially spiritual and social) goods must be weighed against the value of preserving life, which in practice here significantly means the lives in his own generation.
Though all three men have come under harsh criticism for their comments, I believe there is an admirable intent behind their words. To be willing to sacrifice oneself so that others may live and flourish can be a good and noble thing. But where they run awry — and gravely so — is in the mistaken notion that such self-sacrifice is all they are proposing. It is not, and a closer look at the implications of this plan reveals an ethical horror.
When Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant was damaged by an earthquake in 2011, the world hailed the heroism of more than 200 retirees who volunteered to perform the clean-up work so younger people would not be exposed to leaking radiation. "I am 72, and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live," said Yasuteru Yamada, who organized the elderly volunteers. "Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop." A worker of 30 or 40 would easily live that long, doomed to suffer for decades Yamada and his peers could avoid.
That sort of self-sacrifice may be what Beck envisions when he speaks of elderly people volunteering to keep the economy — and our society more broadly — intact for their children and grandchildren. But there's a ruinous flaw in this analogy: Radiation poisoning is not communicable from person to person. COVID-19 is highly communicable. It is impossible to isolate the risk, as at Fukushima, when the threat is infection.
That reality means what initially looks like self-sacrifice would, in practice, consist of volunteering others to die. This is what we must not do, insofar as we are able.
Beck, Patrick, and Reno may well be prepared for death. That is wisdom at any age. We are dust, and to dust we shall return, says the scripture they — and I — affirm. But others of their generation may not be ready for death, and who are we to hurry them to the grave? That would have us grasping at a power which is not ours. It masquerades as protection of life, or more properly a way of life, but its face under the mask wears a callous, morbid look.
Volunteering others' lives for posterity's prosperity is not the only harm in this idea. The intended beneficiaries would be injured, too. For some, literally so: Younger people fare better when infected with COVID-19, but we are not immune. A child was killed by the novel coronavirus in Los Angeles this week. In New York City, one in four of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are under 50, and a handful are under 18.
But illness or death from the virus is not the only way this plan would harm the generations it is supposed to help. Consider: Perhaps we do not want our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and professors and bosses and elderly neighbors to die for us. Perhaps we don't think a country minus so many of our loved ones would be a country successfully preserved. Perhaps we don't see in that "the America that all America loves."
This is not because we discount the economic risk. If anyone is positioned to be scared by the prospect of depression, it's us. The younger generations are the ones with decades ahead of us. We're the ones who have low homeownership rates, whose most crucial years for career development are being interrupted right now. Or we're staring down graduation day with absolutely no job prospects. Or we have little kids. Or all of the above! We can't retire now and coast 15 or 20 years to death on accumulated assets. Oh, the economy is in a terrifying spot because of this pandemic response? Yes, we noticed. We're going to live with the results a long time after Beck's generation is gone. That sacrificing the elderly is not our preferred response should be telling.
These offers of self-sacrifice imagine a shining act of heroism but none of the shadows it casts. They miss the unintended consequences, ignoring both the nature of pandemic and the priorities of the very people who are supposedly helped. There is a virtuous impulse here, but it is a shallow virtue fatally ill-informed.
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