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WHEN DISASTER STRIKES, SO DOES BIAS

mgullettes Icon Posted by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

August 28th, 2011

With a hurricane still roaring up the East Coast and the recent example of nuclear danger fizzing in Japan, emergency preparedness ought to be on our minds. Disaster can strike anywhere. When it does, we ought to be thinking of the special precautions the vulnerable need in any catastrophe foretold. The new longevity means caring for a higher percentage of elderly people ; and many people are disabled long before old age with conditions that may worsen with age.

New Orleans provided a lesson. Hurricane and Flood Katrina in 2005 taught that older people are the most at risk. Of those who died right away, 64 percent were over sixty-five, in a city where beforehand a mere 12 percent were over that age. A full 78 percent were only fifty and up. No child died.

Katrina was one of the worse medical catastrophes for the aged in recent US history. But it was not an isolated incident. In Paris in the heat wave of 2003, it was also old people who died. In Paris disparate impact of age meant deaths that came not from existing ailments, but from family abandonment and the city’s lack of communal resources like air-conditioning. After 9/11, our foremost gerontologist, the late Dr. Robert Butler, pointed out that in Manhattan pets were evacuated within 24 hours, while older shut-ins and the disabled waited for up to a week without electricity or food.

Much is luck in emergencies. But luck and economic resources go hand in hand. It was better-off New Orleansians who lived on higher ground above the flood, or had a two-story house or a car to get them out. Others, older and poorer, lived where the flood waters rose seven feet. They couldn’t run or swim away.

Some adult children abandoned their parents in New Orleans when they themselves drove off–possibly thinking their family members could ride out the storm. Others behaved heroically. First responders in a boat offered to take one bedridden woman’s family if they left her behind. They refused. When a second boat approached, they prudently placed her in first.

What ethicists worry about is triage, whenever there is scarcity of reources. Triage means some people have the power to make decisions about whom to help. These decisions cannot always be long-considered, philosophical ones. Rescuers make unconscious choices, about who gets into the boat or on the bus, who gets sought if missing, who receives warm blankets, extra water, radiation tests, emergency housing. Gifts of life or sentences of death in many cases. They are spur-of-the-moment and can be based on bias.

Ageism is one such possible bias. We see it everywhere in the deficit atmosphere, a triage situation that is being artificially created in a recession to diminish aid to those over 65 as well as others in need. The Republican Congress is willing to let Social Security go under, to delay Medicare until age 67, to cut services to the poor on Medicaid. Pundits make atrocious misstatements about Social Security–which we pay for directly out of our salaries and have earned by the time we get it; and which now boasts huge surpluses from the Baby Boomers who have worked hard all their lives. Cutting the payroll tax is a devious attack on Social Security and the elderly.

The Congress that passed our national health care system also agreed to let private health insurers charge midlife people two to three times what younger people are charged. Ageism can be found everywhere we look, not in people’s hearts only but about to affect our most important and treasured institutions and programs.

Ageism is the latest of the accepted bigotries to be questioned. It is a terrible bias that–like racism and sexism and homophobia– needs to be named and fully understood in all its artful hiding places in order to be eradicated. We may miss the worst of the hurricane, but this storm of hostility could be in all our futures if we don’t resist.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America and is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University


Agewise: “Important social criticism from a prominent scholar.” –Publishers Weekly

One Response to “WHEN DISASTER STRIKES, SO DOES BIAS”

  1. Computer Hardware
    May 30th, 2015 15:18
    1

    I’m impressed, I must say. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative and amusing, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The problem is an issue that too few folks are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I stumbled across this in my hunt for something relating to this.

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