COVID-19: Reject the generational divide and rule

Arguments using the generational divide in the pandemic mask the capitalist roots of neoliberalism.

COVID19’s deadlier impact on older people has been confirmed, although younger people have also died and they are now known to be most of the asymptomatic carriers of the disease.

In Australia, as of April 27, the median age of all COVID-19 cases is 48 years, while the median age of deaths is 79.5 years. Tragically, 17 people have died in residential care (four in one day) and two in home care. In the 60–89 year old category, more males have died. Of those over 90 years old, a similar number of males and females (8 each) have died.

These figures are low, however, compared with Italy, where 9544 people aged 80–89 years old have died and 3328 people of 90 years or more have died. In the United States, the figures are even higher.

It may be not be surprising therefore that some people, who are arguing strongly for an immediate return to “normal”, are pitting the needs of young people against those of the elderly. But as we collectively look forward to moving out of the COVID-19 lockdown, we have to insist that no-one is left behind — not the young and not the elderly.

On the panel of the ABC’s April 20 Q&A program on the topic “COVID-19: Where to Next?”, economist Gigi Foster argued that the COVID-19 measures impose an unfair economic burden on young people for the benefit of older people.

In response to a question from a young person, she replied: “This is a massive cost shift and we are going to see the burden not just today, but in future years, on primarily the younger people.” While she seemed to be unclear at first about exactly what she was advocating, Foster ended the program arguing for “herd immunity ... via the exposure of many, many people to this virus”.

Health scientist Jodie McVernon, another panellist on the show, was sympathetic to the plight of young people, but argued strongly against the herd immunity strategy, describing it as a “defacto ‘let it rip’ strategy” 

She said the lack of infections and deaths in Australia were because the country had acted early, and the public had respected the lockdown. But, she warned, health experts did not yet know “whether a single exposure to this virus is enough to induce long-term or lifelong immunity”, and “that [herd immunity] strategy is extremely risky and could cost us dearly with very limited returns”.

Epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre confirmed this, telling a Kirby Institute seminar on April 21 that herd immunity would not necessarily be achieved by letting an infection transmission rip.

She said the consequences of such a strategy would “result in a large increase in cases for little gain”. Previous infections, such as smallpox and measles, had shown that, when allowed to rip, society had to deal with “cycling epidemics” and for COVID-19 that would result in “the full spectrum of the disease being unleashed”. This would result in absenteeism from work; the health system capacity being exceeded and an increase in health worker infections and deaths limiting capacity to treat other conditions; and a severe impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The pursuit of profits over our collective health and safety has had a big impact on young people’s economic and social choices over the past few decades.

Essentially, their choices have markedly decreased. The rise in user-pays education and the increased casualisation of workplaces are just two major factors. Australia has one of the highest rates of casualisation (13%) among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) 34 member countries: one in four workers here is a casual and more than half of all casual employees have no guaranteed hours. One in 3 workers has no access to paid leave.

An OECD report released last year notes that young people, especially those without a tertiary education, find it more difficult to get work and that women are the most at risk. It said that despite Australia’s resilience during the Global Financial Crisis, Australia still has “one of the largest increases in under-employment across OECD countries since 2007”. 

Another major factor limiting young people’s life choices is the dire lack of affordable housing in the major cities, and beyond. Since COVID-19 began, residential renters have been left high and dry by state and federal governments, which are prioritising assistance to landlords and commercial tenants while telling residential renters to “negotiate” with their landlords.

But older working-class people have also been hit hard by neoliberalism. More than a quarter of a million pensioners do not own their own home and a third are living in poverty. Single older women are also more likely to be living in poverty. An OECD report from 2015 reported that the Australian government spends just 3.5% of GDP on the pension, while the OECD average is 7.9%. 

The shocking situation in the privatised aged care system is another glaring example. Ironically the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, established in 2018, has been suspended because of COVID-19. But its interim findings show the cruelty of the for-profit system, in which the number of reported assaults has doubled in two years, amid carer shortages and a lack of professional staff.

The commissioners’ interim report released last October found “a shocking tale of neglect”. It said that for older people and their families, the residential care system is “dispiriting” with “serious substandard care and unsafe practice[s], an underpaid, undervalued and insufficiently trained workforce”. It continued: “The aged care system fails to meet the needs of its older, vulnerable, citizens. It does not deliver uniformly safe and quality care, is unkind and uncaring towards older people and, in too many instances, it neglects them.”

Is it any wonder that fatalities from COVID-19 have taken off in these places?

Foster is not the first economist to use the generational device to mask who is responsible for presiding over the neoliberal austerity agenda in Australia for decades: the capitalist class and their major parties. 

The science must guide how we safely return to work. Those who pit generations against each other are not naïve; they are pushing a cheap and nasty divide-and-rule strategy. We must not fall for it. We need to defend the interests of all generations who are oppressed and exploited and insist that no one is left behind.

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