Why lockdown of the elderly is not ageist and why levelling down equality is wrong
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On the grounds that the elderly are more likely than the non-elderly to become severely unwell, require intensive, scarce and expensive and thereby put the NHS at risk of being overwhelmed, if they catch COVID-19, Savulescu and Cameron make two dubious claims. Firstly, they say that a selective, legally compulsory, lockdown of the elderly to stem a resurgence of the pandemic could be morally justifiable. Secondly, they say that such a selective lockdown would be just. They write: ‘Ethically, selective isolation is permissible. It is not unjust discrimination. It is analogous to only screening women for breast cancer: selecting those at a higher probability of suffering from a disease.’1Show More
I shall focus here on a response to the latter claim. To justify a particular allocation of benefits or burdens as a just allocation is different from justifying a particular allocation – whether or not it is just – in terms of its morally desirable consequences. I do not believe that a lockdown of the elderly would be morally justified by its consequences but, whether or not it would so be, it would be unjust discrimination.
ARISTOTLE ON DISTRIBUTIVE JUSTICE AND WOMEN
Under the heading of ‘THE IDEAL OF EQUALITY AND THE CONCEPT OF UNJUST DISCRIMINATION.’, Savulescu and Cameron write:
‘Aristotle described the principle of equality as treating like cases alike, unless there is a morally relevant difference. For example, if men are allowed to vote, and women are not, th...
In response to the article by Savulescu & Cameron  “Why lockdown of the elderly is not ageist and why levelling down equality is wrong,” we claim that the article presents an ageist approach that may be as harmful or more than the actual virus. In their work, the authors make reference to philosophical, legal, and practical aspects of locking down older adults, as they make the case for the merits of what they refer to as selective isolation. It is our position, as psychologists and gerontologists, that this approach is ageist, and is a disservice to older adults and society at large.Show More
In the initial response to this article, O'Hanlon, O'Keeffe & O'Neill , have done a comprehensive job of refuting these claims based on the science that has been coming in regarding the effects of the lockdown on older adults. We wish to contribute another angle – that of the actual preferences and values of older adults themselves. No discourse about any group in society is complete without including this group. Thus, we attempt to abide by the old adage: "Nothing About Us Without Us".
In a recent qualitative study, we explored the personal experiences and preferences of older adults living in CCRCs (continuing care communities) in Israel during the height of the novel Coronavirus pandemic . We were surprised to discover that CCRC residents in different locations in Israel were subjected to significant restrictions, and in many cases were...
The opinion piece by Savulescu and Cameron is a good reminder of why multidisciplinarity is so important for clinical ethics, and even more so where decisions for older people are concerned. There are so many problematic aspects to this paper it is genuinely difficult to know where to start.
Taking language first, the authors write in a reductionist manner about “the aged” and “the elderly”. These terms are repugnant to older people and the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and ignore the diversity of the older population and the need for individual, and individualised, recommendations. The authors’ comment about not defining “an appropriate cut-off to identify ‘the elderly’” also misses this point. While acknowledging that ethnicity is a proxy for other factors that contribute to poorer outcomes, the authors fail to recognise that age is also such a proxy.
The erroneous and nihilistic “inevitable association between age and deterioration of physical health” seems to be a foundation for flawed arguments. Some older people are in poor health and may be well-advised – not coerced - to stay mainly indoors, avoid unnecessary social contact, and to take outdoor exercise at a safe distance. Others will have a different risk profile or will balance the potential benefits and risks of isolation differently. The assertion that “coercion is used in standard quarantine on the basis of risk of harm to others” does not recognise that people without any com...Show More