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Corona Diaries: the over-seventies and “needs must”

April 22, 2020

Mary Beard, my favourite professor (apart from my brother, of course) came up with an interesting observation in her blog piece in yesterday’s Times Literary supplement.

What if the government, in its anxiety to get the nation working again, decides that there are “more important things than living”, as a Texas politician has famously said? As a result, everyone over seventy must stay at home until further notice, and everyone else is free to flounce around infecting each other?

Mary’s own situation – she is under 70 and her husband is past that point – leads her to ask by what logic she should be allowed out, only to come home and infect him.

Both my beloved and I are under 70. I am forever 59, as my blog title suggests, but if I happened to be 69, would I suddenly face internment on my next birthday? Perhaps I would get another letter from Boris Johnson, or more likely a stern letter from the local constabulary telling me to get my arse back home.

And should I be bold enough to venture out, will there an Oldie Squad scanning the motorways looking for geriatric drivers? Will I have to duck behind a hedge to avoid tut-tutting joggers?

As Mary says, we’re very confused about the elderly at the moment. One minute we praise them. Captain Tom raises millions for the NHS. The oldest man in the world is British, and we marvel at his ability to string together a few meaningful sentences. And as the oldies die of COVID-19, grandchildren tell us what wonderful people they were.

The next moment they’re bed blockers. They’re a burden on the state. We might worry about the over-70s being allowed to die in the pandemic, but the over-90s? Let’s not waste oxygen, ICU beds and PPE kit on them. They’ve had their time.

Even 99-year-old Captain Tom might get it in the neck. You could argue that he’s been manipulated, though goodness knows by whom. A captain is a junior officer in the army. He would surely not use that title when referring to himself. Even someone calling themselves major, the next rank up, comes over as slightly ridiculous. Someone else has given it to him for branding purposes. He most likely wouldn’t know how to set up a Just Giving page. Someone else set it up for him. All he’s done is repeatedly walk up and down a garden. He’s probably bewildered at all the fuss, even though I’m sure he’s enjoying the attention.

Back in the land of the under-seventies, I wouldn’t be surprised if the good captain isn’t making a few people feel rather jealous. I might run a marathon a day for 60 days, climb the ten highest mountains in the world or walk from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego to raise money for charity, and what do I raise? A few thousand, a few tens of thousands? Then this doddery old chap comes along, slides his zimmer frame up and down his garden, and he’s raised £20 million! He’s feted as a champion and will probably get a gong from the Queen. Where’s the justice in that?

I don’t share such churlish thoughts, of course. He’s a symbol, a focus for our generosity, a virus of hope.

In terms of acclaim if not achievement, he’s the Francis Chichester of our age. Anyone remember him, by the way? The world’s first solo round-the-world yachtsman. His voyage, completed in 1967, took him nine months. He was so famous that he made it on to a postage stamp, a rare honour at the time. One of the reasons why he was so feted in Britain was that he was seen as a shining example of what the elderly could achieve. Which shows what low expectations we had of the elderly – both in terms of lifespan and vigour – back then. He was 66 when he came sailing back to England.

Different times, different circumstances.

But it does seem sad that we can adore Captain Tom and yet sigh with regret as the 90-year-olds are allowed to die in care homes. Needs must, it seems.

Needs must also when we’re told that we shouldn’t wear face masks, even if they stop us spreading the virus, because the science isn’t conclusive. Whereas the real reason is that there aren’t enough masks to go round because it has failed to procure them, and it doesn’t want to deprive NHS staff of their much-needed equipment.

Needs must also that we should keep the vibrant, lively, energetic elderly locked away while the rest of us bound happily out into the streets again, should things turn out that way.

Needs must means do the expedient thing. I’m not about to call out this or that government for mistakes they have made during this pandemic (well, not in this post anyway), even if I have the heartiest contempt for the people we in the UK – and our cousins in the US for that matter – have elected.

Governments make mistakes because they’re made up of human beings. But if I make a mistake, it’s far less likely to affect the lives of millions of people than if our leaders screw up. Whether they’re forgiven or excoriated, their mistakes can’t be unmade.

But what sticks in my throat is when those governments fail to admit that they’re driven by expediency, and try to dress up grim necessity with platitudes and pious expressions of principle.

But is it right to demand total honesty of governments in extreme situations? Would we British have thanked Winston Churchill for telling us how dire things were in 1940? Or, in that scenario beloved of disaster movies, if the asteroid is heading towards us and promising certain death, should we be told of our fate and left to make our peace with our maker, at the risk of mass panic and civic chaos, or should we be left in blissful ignorance until the end?

Surely there’s a balance to be struck in the information that needs to be released. But where that balance is laced with untruths, as Donald Trump, America’s demented cheerleader, has discovered, the result can be toxic.

I suspect that when The Recriminator puts the current crop of leaders on trial for their missteps in the current crisis, it will not just be their mistakes for which they’re damned for posterity, but also their obvious, frightened and stupid lies.

From → Politics, Social, UK, USA

  1. Here’s my dose of hope for today.
    Why can’t I put a picture?
    Well, it will have to be a virtual one.

    Irises flowering annually giving us pleasure.

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