opinion

OPINION: We need to stop saying coronavirus is "only" killing old people.

When I say I’m afraid of coronavirus (or COVID-19), I usually get the same response: “Ah, don’t worry. It’s only killing old people. You’ll be fine.”

I know. I’ve seen the statistics. I almost definitely won’t die if I get it.

But when did we decide that elderly people’s lives don’t matter?

Listen: An infectious disease specialist answers your 20 most pressing questions about COVID-19. Post continues below.

Maybe I’m just feeling a bit raw because my mother died a few months ago. She was old, well over 80. But her death hurt – hurt me, hurt my dad, hurt my kids. Now I’m imagining that hurt multiplied all over Australia, due to the spread of coronavirus. And I can’t laugh at all the toilet paper memes in my Facebook feed.

If you haven’t seen the statistics, here they are. People in their 60s have a 3.6 per cent chance of dying if they get coronavirus. People in their 70s have an eight per cent chance of dying. People aged 80 and over have a 14.8 per cent chance of dying.

The three Australians who’ve died so far from coronavirus have been aged 78, 95 and 82. The 78-year-old was James Kwan, who died in isolation in WA. As Premier Mark McGowan said, the circumstances of his death were “very distressing” for his family.

“They couldn’t go in and touch him or hold his hand,” McGowan told the West Australian. “It would have been so tragically sad. I feel deeply for them in that circumstance. You don’t want to leave this world without someone holding your hand.”

My mum died a death that was as good as anyone could have hoped for. She had her children around her. We were holding her hands and telling her how much we loved her. We had barely left her bedside for days.

Coronavirus deaths may not be such good deaths. And that really does matter, as anyone who’s lost a close family member is aware.

No one knows how many Australians are going to end up being infected with COVID-19. Estimates are as high as 70 per cent of the population.

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But when it spreads through the community, it’s most probably going to end up killing people we know. Maybe not our own parents or grandparents, but maybe friends’ parents or grandparents. Maybe the sweet lady next door, or the nice old man who runs the cafe, or that worker in your office who’s planning her retirement.

Surely we all have old people in our lives that we cherish. I do.

There’s a heartless tone to a lot of the comments I’m reading on social media.

“Bit of an overreaction, I think,” one woman posted this morning on a news story about coronavirus. “Only a bunch of elderly folks have succumbed to it. The young and the healthy seem fine. All this closing down of events, schools and panic buying dunny rolls is absolutely ridiculous.”

It’s easy to write something like that when you’re young and healthy. But how must it feel to read those kinds of comments when you might be considered one of those “elderly folks” yourself?

And of course, let’s not forget the younger people with existing health conditions who are also at increased risk of death from coronavirus. We’re talking about some of the most vulnerable people in our community here. We should be looking out for them, not writing them off as expendable.

Instead of mocking coronavirus, or mocking people who fear it, let’s take it seriously, out of respect for elderly people. We should take the advice of health authorities on how to reduce the spread of coronavirus, even if we know it would only feel like a cold if we caught it ourselves. We should be thinking not about how coronavirus would affect us, but how it might affect other people.

Because if we don’t care about the most vulnerable people in our society, what kind of society are we?

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