Dawn is breaking January 1, 2020, when I receive a phone call. The paramedic on the other end informs me that my brother, Olivier, has fallen and can’t get up. Administrators of the lodge where Olivier lives have told the paramedic that Olivier has schizophrenia, and the paramedic wants to know if it’s normal that he can’t recall his last name or birthdate.
No, I tell him, that’s not normal.
An ambulance rushes my brother to the Foothills Hospital, where he’s assessed, then admitted to Neurology. He never recovers, the cause of his decline never confirmed beyond a vague diagnosis of “undetermined brain degeneration.” After several months of examination, still unable to walk, he’s transferred to an assisted living facility, where a few months later his condition worsens and he’s returned to Neurology for further tests. The results remain inconclusive. Unable now to lift himself from bed, he’s transferred to a long-term care facility. It’s an awful year, dreadful, and made infinitely worse, transpiring as it does, against the bewildering, apocalyptic backdrop of the 2020–21 pandemic.
I’ve been struggling alongside my brother to navigate a medical system that should be helpful, but often, curiously, isn’t. For over 40 years, Olivier has negotiated a life with schizophrenia that has accustomed him to feeling overlooked and dismissed. Now, for the first time, he has discovered what it is to be judged truly expendable.
What made him feel that way?
Bend your mind back to those unsettling moments when the pandemic first revealed itself, and recollect how different the world suddenly appeared. COVID-19 initially seemed distant, a curiosity making its appearance on our late-night news feeds, but it spread with such ferocity that it became hard to keep track of where it would manifest next: flaring in Wuhan, China, then erupting in South Korea and Japan, then among hapless passengers stranded on cruise ships, then abruptly landing in Italy and Iran, and then America and Brazil. The deaths just kept mounting. The virus, in that first explosion of spreading infection, proved more contagious than what had been predicted. We were told it was potentially airborne, then that it could be transmitted even when no visible symptoms manifested. Hospitals in Italy swelled to capacity. In Iran as well. In Mexico and Brazil, as the virus found traction, field hospitals were erected and fresh graves excavated in anticipation of the corpses that kept materializing. It was like living a fever dream.
Then somebody pointed out that 80 per cent of those dying were over 70 years old, and a shift occurred. It was as though you could actually hear the Somebodies of the world emit an audible sigh of relief. A virus that killed almost no one but Nobodies. Really, what could be more convenient?
It was Stephan Kohn, a mid-level bureaucrat in Germany’s interior ministry, an only sometimes Somebody, who first manufactured, then leaked a fake report he hoped could force his government to ease their recently imposed lockdown. The report stated, “The people who die from corona are essentially those who would statistically die this year because they have reached the end of their lives and their weakened bodies can no longer cope with random everyday stress.”
But it took an insurer to really crunch the numbers and produce arresting results. Solange Vieira, of Private Insurance in Brazil, brought the necessary clarity to the situation. “It’s good,” she observed, “that deaths are concentrated among the old. That will improve our economic performance, as it will reduce our pension deficit.”
And one could always rely on the premier of my home province, Jason Kenney, to speak his mind. “We cannot,” he said, “continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic—as well as the mental—health and physiological health of the broader population for potentially a year for an influenza that does not generally threaten life apart from the elderly and the immunocompromised.”
I’m seated beside my over-65, immuno-compromised brother as he reclines in his bed, his television turned on. We’re watching unmasked demonstrators march through downtown Calgary waving signs. “There is no emergency!” one sign reads. “Don’t live in fear!” says another.
“Easy for them to say,” Olivier remarks quietly.
We have come a long way since those early days of COVID. Now we, who never expected a first year of isolation, quarantine, mask-wearing, social distancing—who never even knew what any of that was—find ourselves in a second grotesque, demoralizing year of pandemic. And if we failed to anticipate the depth, breadth and longevity of COVID, it is another quantum order of surprise to discover that there are actually people who oppose wearing the very masks that could keep them and others around them safe.
And yet, here we are.
Since then, these contrarian sentiments have gathered strength and taken the form of an anthem sung by anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers everywhere. The measures taken, they say, are too great, those harmed by the disease too few. An article I read recently quotes one person explaining his antipathy for masks. “I hear all the time, people are like, ‘I’d rather be safe than sorry, I don’t want to be a grandma killer.’ I’m sorry to sound so harsh… [but] I’m laughing, because grandmas and grandpas die all the time.”
The virus is new, but these attitudes aren’t. In some cultures the elderly may be honoured, even revered, but in Western culture not so much. The Ontario Association of Social Workers has observed “a growing tendency to blame the elderly for escalating healthcare costs and difficulties in accessing services. [This] is often evident in how both the public and media frame discussions of healthcare issues, [with a] pejorative labelling of older adults as ‘bed blockers.’”
The Law Commission of Ontario also noted, “Older people are always singled out as the most expensive demographically defined group of health care users. It is a cliché for journalists and many health policy authorities to remark that X per cent of people over the age of 65 account for XX per cent of the healthcare dollar.”
Care facilities for the elderly—where so many died of COVID in Canada—have for decades been found negligent in their treatment, short of staff and failing to meet regulated hygiene standards. In 1983 a task force struck by the Canadian Medical Association determined that the “standard of care provided in many nursing homes is grossly inadequate.” Since that time, panels and task forces have again and again found age care facilities wanting. (“Many seniors are falling through the cracks,” Canadian Health Coalition, 2018; “The current delivery of long-term care across Canada… remains inadequate and challenging,” National Institute on Aging, 2019.) A 2020 CBC story by Aaron Wherry was headlined “Leaving out long-term care was medicare’s original sin—and we’re paying for it now.” But the problem is always too expensive to remedy, and there are always worthier projects to fund.
Those who are ill, those who are aged, those who are frail, are often viewed not just as consuming scarce resources but as impeding the strength and virility of those who are healthy. Our culture has attempted to have it both ways—on the surface, sympathetic; way down deep, strictly business. COVID-19 has just torn away the facade.
These statements surfaced in the comments section of my Facebook feed this morning. “You can die a thousand different ways. Staying locked in your house is not going to change that.”
“The year of lockdowns hasn’t done shit. Open everything up and let people live their lives. I’ve got more chance of dying of shark attack in Alberta than from COVID.”
Of course, fatalism is always easiest to adopt when it’s someone else’s fatality you’re accepting. But it’s not just anonymous online philosophers who have advanced this live-and-let-die attitude. It’s abundantly evident among the 13 United Conservative Party MLAs who in May of 2021 penned a note to our premier condemning his anti-COVID measures as “too extreme.” It’s exhibited among young people who have opted to party maskless at ski resorts, beaches and bars. It’s manifest among misguided evangelicals exhorting their congregants to pack their churches, regardless of how many people they infect.
If you are confused by this unconventional confederacy, if you want to know what made blood-brothers of legislators, evangelicals and barflies, it’s this: the aged and frail have long represented an enormous embarrassment and expense to many in the public. Along comes this virus which vaporizes the economy, and all at once it’s as though a splendid mathematical formula has been inscribed: 2 parts Expedience + 1 part Convenience = Irrelevance cubed. Nobody wants anybody to die, sure, but better by far this eventuality for some than the tragedy of shuttering Walmart or closing liquor stores or hair salons or churches or gyms or yoga studios or hockey arenas or schools or indoor dining or outdoor dining or airports.
In short, the coronavirus offers precisely what so many in the world were waiting for. It is a disease that can be confidently relied upon to sweep away the expensive, inconvenient, ailing elderly. (Weren’t they simply draining the public purse by collecting pensions anyway? And just consider all the costly medical procedures that will no longer be needed.) And at the same time, it dispenses with the homeless and mentally ill, who constitute an expense (all those homele$$ $helter$—am I right?) a nuisance, an eyesore and a constant, nagging, unpleasant reminder that our tolerant, benevolent society might actually be a teensy bit less tolerant or benevolent than we had imagined.
And what about the Expendables? For Olivier, 2020 was an intense and disorienting experience. In addition to struggling with a bewildering illness and coping with the very actual threat that COVID-19 presented, he was confronted by the spectacle of demonstrators on the evening news defying the law, intentionally dismissing the precariousness of his situation and simultaneously spreading the illness. In November 2020, his facility experienced its first COVID flareup, initially in one wing, then in another, then in the upstairs unit as well. It came in a rush. For a period of months—all through Christmas and into the new year—residents and staff, one after another, then in bunches, contracted the virus, fell sick and nothing seemed able to halt its advance. It was like floodwaters rising. People died. Ultimately over 40 residents and workers of his facility took ill, and my brother wondered, each day, quarantined and isolated, confined to his room, unable to lift himself, or walk, if the surge would sweep through his floor next, past his door next, through his ventilation, whether he would become the next disposable older-person-with-a-comorbidity.
That was his reality.
As I write this, Olivier is safe. He’s received his vaccination. But only after nearly 25,000 Canadians died of the virus, over 2,000 of them in Alberta. Many of them—most of them—elderly. And while there may yet be a post-mortem, and we can assuredly anticipate a little dramatic handwringing, it’s abundantly evident that there has never been much appetite for large-scale preventive social measures. It’s clear that this disease was principally deadly for those who had it coming in the first place, the Expendables, who if they didn’t want to catch it, really should never have gotten old or ill in the first place.
Clem Martini is a playwright, novelist and librettist, and a drama professor at the University of Calgary.