Nicholas Agar argues that Covid-19 could finally be the thing that changes the way we think about our older population 

As Aotearoa’s pandemic drones on, one widening crack in our Team of Five Million is intergenerational. It concerns the pandemic’s different impacts on the young and the old. We understand that the virus is worse for older people. When we see that it has taken a younger person, we expect to see a reference to an “underlying condition”.

Fictional plagues and Covid-19

This is a difference between Covid-19 and the pandemics imagined by Hollywood before 2019. When released in 2011, Steven Soderbergh’s pandemic movie, Contagion was praised for its scientific accuracy. The cause of that pandemic was a fictional virus – MEV-1 – that killed 25 to 30 percent of those it infected. MEV-1 is obviously a much nastier virus than SARS-Cov-2. The Johns Hopkins University case-fatality statistics for rich world nations are typically around 1 percent.

We should be grateful we are in a Covid-19 pandemic and not an MEV-1 pandemic. But Covid-19 has exposed tensions that Soderbergh and his scientific advisors didn’t imagine. One is the differential effect of SARS-Cov-2 on the young and the old. MEV-1 didn’t play favourites in the way Covid-19 does.

The effects of the fictional MEV-1 on older people were doubtless much worse than on the young and healthy. But suppose you understood that your chance of death from MEV-1 was only 10 percent. You are unlikely to take MEV-1 lightly. The rapid spread of Covid-19 is abetted by young people’s resentment at restrictions. They understand they are unlikely to get very sick from Covid. They relax and unmask, and then visit their aunties and uncles for Sunday tea and cakes.

There’s a difference between MEV-1’s threat to everyone and Covid-19’s privileging of the young. The imperatives of New Zealand’s economy demand a reopening to the world. As we have reopened, the elderly have been left to fend for themselves. They hope to delay tea and cakes with nieces and nephews until SARS-Cov-2 has evolved into a variant still milder than Omicron.

I would love to suggest a quick fix. Instead, my proposal looks to the long term. It might prepare Aotearoa to better reply to the next challenge that strikes the elderly and infirm with greater force than the young and fit.

Make the elderly more visible

The French historian Philippe Ariès wrote about the way our modern age has made death “invisible”. It tends to happen out of our view. People go to special medical facilities where their passing is witnessed only by health professionals and chosen close family.

The stages leading up to death – old age and physical infirmity – have also become less visible. People await death largely out of sight. Covid-19 has exaggerated this as we have sequestered the vulnerable to protect them from the virus. Infection has led to the denial of so many of the human touches essential to a good death.

We have repeatedly been alerted to Covid deaths in aged care facilities. But because these deaths happen out of view, we are more likely to forget them. Perhaps in the decades to come we will think of them as befalling people who were on their way out anyway. Covid-19 merely hastened what is viewed as a natural process. I hope that we take this opportunity to correct this way of thinking about the elderly.

Consider another ongoing disruption. The digital revolution is automating many of our jobs. Machines are doing what we do more efficiently and at lower cost. The MYOB™ Accounting Software Package already does much of what accountants do. Today’s trainee accountants should consider what they are likely to add to the 2035 edition of this package.

Many older people have already experienced these shocks. They get the message that since they are unable to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change in the workplace, they must make way for the young. But if some forecasts about the digital revolution are accurate, then the technological progress that pushes older people out is coming for the young too. We should view the redundancy of the old as a warning of the fate that awaits us all from the digital age’s increasingly efficient digital technologies. If we can make use of the talents of older people, we might also solve the problem for the rest of us in an age of brilliant machines.

Let’s create a social economy that includes older people

Many tech leaders argue that we should celebrate a jobless future. This is no surprise coming from the group that stands to profit most from a machine-run economy.

But there is another possibility I hope we take. The modern age is an anomaly in its comparative lack of interest in the wisdom and teaching of older people. An age in which machines command the parts of the economy in which efficiency rules could be an opportunity to create a social economy that values the stories and experiences of older people.

My 2019 book How to be Human in the Digital Economy proposes that since we may soon be unable to compete with machine learners and AIs on efficiency and price we should create a social economy that shares out some of the benefits that Amazonian forager-farmers receive from their elders. The operating systems of this social economy aren’t lines of code but the stories that pass on wisdom about how best to be human. These stories shouldn’t just be for grandkids.

Even a successful social economy may need to temporarily farewell older people when the next pandemic strikes. But if we create a social economy, we will surely miss them and be looking for ways to reinstate them as soon as possible.  

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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