“Life is cheap” is an expression usually reserved for primitive peoples or violent times, be it warring tribes and clans slaughtering each other like chickens or the showdown-at-noon culture of the American Wild West. At least drawing six-shooters was between two men standing at either end of a street. Now someone mows down all his co-workers because he’s angry with the boss, or concert goers because he’s angry with the company that owns the arena, or kids because he’s angry with their school. But these are recognizable bad guys. “Life is cheap” is also about landlords in cities dense with renters seeing only units, not lives, or business schools teaching students that pleasing shareholders is a moral imperative. Or the governor of New York State signing an executive order that sent elderly people still infectious from COVID-19 back into nursing homes where the virus spread like wild fire.
Issued on March 25, Cuomo’s order was intended to ease the burden on hospitals dealing with the “most critical” COVID-19 patients. In other words, he wanted the beds. He wanted the beds old people were using for someone else. (Like younger people whose lives were more worthy of living?) Desperate times call for desperate measures! Crisis mode! Even though help was already on the way. FEMA had been brought in on March 20 to design a medical facility in the Javits Center, by March 27 the hospital ship Comfort was en route and Samaritan’s Purse field hospital in Central Park was up and running by April 1. But, hey, the old coots were probably gonna die soon anyway. Maybe Cuomo was on to something. Several thousand nursing home residents died—and his poll numbers went up.
Last May, while walking through my building lobby I saw a neighbor on her way out. The usual greetings were exchanged; hello, hello, how are you, fine, and you? She told me her mother had just died. I gave condolences. The neighbor is no spring chicken, so I knew her mom must have been very old, and I empathized by saying that losing your mom is a real tough one, no matter her age. She nodded, then said: “She died of COVID. She caught it in the nursing home. We weren’t even allowed to visit.” So, you couldn’t say goodbye? “No.” And she died alone? How awful. Was she conscious and aware? She shook her head, waved her hand, and said with a soft, rueful laugh: “Oh, no! Not for a long time now. Years.” Awkward shrug. Since then there’s been a noticeable change in her body language. She’s lighter. Freer. A weight has been lifted.
I’m in no position to judge. My mother collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage and died five days later, my father had a massive heart attack and was dead before he hit the garage floor. No drawn-out illnesses, no long-term care, and no nursing home expenses. Albany politicians may be pushing for commissions to investigate the role Cuomo’s executive order had in the death of what is now over 6,400 nursing home residents, but I suspect many voters will forgive him.
Cuomo isn’t the only one to engage in selective triage. During Mayor Giuliani’s term there was a policy not to inform people that they were HIV positive when it turned up in any blood test that wasn’t specifically requested for AIDS. Such as routine pre-natal blood work. If doctors found HIV in the blood of a pregnant woman, they were not allowed to inform her, even though by that time it was known that administering the drug AZT to pregnant women could at least save the babies. But no dice. This policy was in place, overtly anyway, due to pressure from organized and well-funded gay advocacy groups such as GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) because they feared reporting policies, no matter how humanitarian, would be bad for their group. It wasn’t until 1998, after public outrage fueled by newspaper stories exposing this callous disregard for innocent babies, that regulations were drafted for New York’s HIV Reporting and Partner Notification Law—which was promptly denounced. Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart warned, “Government lists are threatening to the poor, the young, women and gay men of all races, undocumented immigrants and many people of color. It is bad public health policy to chase people away from the health care system—and worse to divert millions of dollars from prevention and treatment.”
Why didn’t Giuliani act sooner? Babies were being born with HIV and dying within two years. True, in his second term, after he left his wife, he bunked in with a gay couple, but would loyalty to a gay friendship override simple decency? And was the gay lobby truly so powerful as to be calling the shots when it came to pregnant women? Or was heeding the strident voices of a self-interested clutch actually just a useful misdirect? Did the powers that be, acting in crisis mode, survey the situation and conclude that saving the lives of who knows how many mostly black children—whose fathers were already dead from AIDS and whose mothers soon would be—wasn’t a priority. Maybe their lives were too expensive? (I am speculating here to be sure, but lest anyone think this an impossible scenario, I would remind all of the scandal several years ago in France when health officials permitted hemophilia patients to be given HIV-tainted blood rather than publicly reveal that the blood supply had been dangerously compromised.)
A good number of Americans are enamored of Marxism these days, and they may look at the nursing home/elderly parents burden conundrum and exclaim: Aha! This is why we need government-run health care! I’m not so sure. Not that long ago the newspapers were filled with stories about mistreatment of old people in state-run facilities, and horror stories of conditions in Veteran’s Hospitals abound. Taxpayer-funded nursing homes need to keep costs down and private ones need to make a profit, and this often results in too many bargain-basement employees. Caring for the sick, disabled, confused, and incontinent takes the patience of a saint. It requires a true vocation. But all too often it’s just an unattractive, low-paying job that’s a breeding ground for resentment against vulnerable people who are in need of help. Perhaps the answer lies in religious orders from all denominations (or non-religious, for that matter) dedicated to this mission, staffed by people with a calling, and funded by tax-deductible donations. There is money out there. Campaign contributions to the Democrats total $990 million this year so far and the Republicans have brought in $1.33 billion. Even during a COVID related fragile economy!
The evangelical Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, headed by the late Reverend Billy Graham’s son Franklin, which set up a field hospital in Central Park’s East Meadow for COVID patients, is a perfect example of how it can be done. And in spite of the childish yet tyrannical whining about its politically incorrect stance on gay issues, no one was turned away because of it. Ironically, the purveyors of identity politics vilified the evangelicals because of their “identity.” In any case, I don’t think the answers lie in Marxist dogma and clamorous demands that wealthy people foot the bill for everything. It’s not that all socialistic methods are abhorrent. Social Security is socialism. So are Medicare and unemployment benefits. And rent stabilization, which by stabilizing rents stabilizes neighborhoods, local economies, and the work force. All are good, just, and needed. But giving tacit approval for commandants to get rid of the weak and vulnerable in the name of making “tough decisions” because, truth be told, it brings relief and release, is a siren song to be resisted. And I absolutely include myself even though I had the dubiously good fortune to have both parents make their exit in a mercifully brief fashion. (That I can see it as in any way fortunate says something about me, doesn’t it?)
I had a friend who almost died. She fell down a long flight of steel steps. Her first night in the hospital was one of those “if she makes it through the night” situations. I asked her what it was like. She said: “A night nurse sat by me the whole time. It was so easy just to stop breathing. So easy just not to inhale. To breathe out, but not to breathe in. I was so, so tired. But every time I was about to give up, to not breathe in again, the night nurse would gently touch my arm and say my name. That’s all she did. I’d feel her hand on my arm and hear her say: ‘Nancy’ in a soft voice, calling me back. All night she did that.” Such a thin veil there was separating her life and her death; a simple human touch and a quiet human voice kept my friend on this side of it.
Such a thin veil separates us from the commandants. It’s so easy to give in, so easy to go along.
—Diane Moriarty is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.