From the July-August 2020 issue of News & Letters
by Gerry Emmett
The U.S. had fair warning. One of the first outbreaks of COVID-19 was in a Kirkland, Wash., nursing home. The illness spread quickly among residents and staff.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was explicit: “It is critical that long term care facilities implement active measures to prevent introduction of COVID-19” (March 18).
Despite this, residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities have made up an estimated 43% of U.S. deaths from the virus. How bad is this? These deaths have occurred in a group that only makes up 0.6% of the population. In any other situation these numbers would raise the specter of genocide.
The hardest hit state, New York, also had the most nursing home and assisted living facility deaths, 6,381 by June 12. This was exacerbated by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to send thousands of COVID-19 patients into these facilities.
DYING SCARED, NEGLECTED AND ALONE
Cuomo is hardly the only one with blood on his hands. The next hardest hit state, New Jersey, did the same thing and 5,368 had died by mid-May. As late as May 20, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Minnesota was still sending COVID-19 patients to nursing homes, despite 80% of the state’s 600 deaths having occurred there.
Most of those who died were also in lockdown, isolated from family and friends. As one New Jersey woman asked, “Did my mother die scared, neglected and alone?”
But this scandal worked two ways. For-profit nursing homes from New York to California have evicted many Medicaid patients—to the streets—in favor of taking in more profitable (by $600 a day) COVID-19 Medicare patients.
Thus capitalism reduces “healthcare” to a machinery of death. But to be human is infinitely more than one’s monetary value. To be present when a “confused” elderly woman suddenly remembers with brilliant clarity a day in 1935 is to be witness to a miracle.
To see a loved one awaken from a coma and describe her dreams, and your place in them, is beyond any price.
WAREHOUSING HUMAN BEINGS
Another factor that has made this situation even worse is that COVID-19 lockdowns have sometimes made it impossible for ombudsmen to check on patients. That is, if there are such services.
Many facilities that serve poor and vulnerable communities in Chicago, for example, receive little oversight from the Illinois Department of Public Health or other authorities. At one West Side facility 101 of 200 mostly African-American residents tested positive. Over half of Illinois’ deaths have been in nursing homes—3,433 out of 6,398 as of June 7.
This genocide of the sick and elderly, with all its dimensions of race and class, must be faced squarely and become a turning point in how age and illness are understood. Right now human vulnerability is reduced to a thin bridge of dollar bills over an abyss that swallows up illness and age as greedily as war swallows up youth and health.