Are some lives less equal than others?


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“My father is 68 and insists he has had a good run. With the swimming pool and the tennis club in his Victorian town now closed, his daily pursuits are off limits. His physical fitness and mental wellbeing are suffering.

“Many seniors like him would not put their own life above the livelihoods of their children and grandchildren, if the economic and social costs are too great.

“Yet Scott Morrison suggests people of all ages are equally worth saving.”

You might accept that a life equates to a livelihood. I don’t. You might accept that lives can be weighed against each other. I don’t. They can be weighed for relative worth, but not to pronounce life-and-death judgment on one or the other.

You might accept that when a fit, active elder is temporarily denied his activities and is feeling the effects of it the way we all are, the most efficient solution is to let them slip away. I don’t.

You might accept that 68 is elderly. I don’t, not now. Pretty soon, it will be retirement age in this country. Retirement age is not meant to be use-by date.

There are about four million Australians aged 68 or older. Even with dying with dignity enshrined in Victorian law now, it is difficult to imagine a voluntary cull of the uselessly old being fully subscribed any time soon.

Bless Kehoe’s father for his good run, and his gratitude for it. But a good run cannot be a policy prescription. If 68 is the cut-off point, that puts, say, Geoffrey Rush and Evonne Goolagong Cawley on the expendable list straight away, to pluck two.

If age is to be the life-vs-livelihood determinant, it follows that the further down the scale you sit, the more surplus and superfluous you are.

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Choosing randomly from my little corner of the world, that rules out 70-somethings Dennis Lillee and Kevin Bartlett and two of the three Chappell brothers, for instance. Even more pointedly, it rules out Dawn Fraser and Rod Laver, damned 80-somethings who so far have refused to die out naturally.

It rules out Elton John and Barbra Streisand and the US president, and his challenger, and his challenger’s wife, and George Pell and some of your parents and quite a few of your grandparents and at the very end of the chopping block, Rupert Murdoch.

They’ve all had good runs. You might wish for some of them not to bother us any more, but you surely can’t wish them dead for the sake of fortifying the battered economy. You can’t volunteer their sacrifice.

But even if you do accept that to preserve our precious economy we must consent to a macabre intergenerational version of The Hunger Games, think of this: we’re not contemplating some abstract idea of death, eyes gently closing and a last sigh while a harp plays and angels sing.

For Kehoe’s sums to add up, his father must contract COVID-19. Here’s respiratory physician Dr Lucy Morgan on Q&A last Monday on how it goes for sufferers. “They become breathless. They can’t breathe. Every breath that they take is increasingly difficult.

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“As you get sicker and sicker, your oxygen levels are dropping and dropping and you need more and more support.”

Eventually, you’re on a ventilator, while other organs shut down. “So people’s hearts don’t work properly, their blood pressure doesn’t stay up, their kidneys don’t work properly.”

All the medics can offer is sedation. “Your family can’t talk to you. In COVID-19, your family often can’t be with you. You’re very much alone.”

Greg Baum is a senior writer for The Age.

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