Donald Trump wants me dead.
It’s not personal. I have company. Lots of it.
I am 87, and that puts me in the age group that is being ravaged by the coronavirus as the lethal results of the president’s prolonged and calculated indifference have helped Republicans finally achieve a decades-old ambition.
By July, the Kaiser Family Foundation was reporting that 80 percent of all virus deaths were among those aged 65 or older, with the number in some states far higher—up to 94 percent, for example, in Idaho. By far the worst effects have been in various forms of long-term care facilities, where many residents are over 85.
According to the most recent statistics compiled by The New York Times, more than 439,000 residents and staff members have been infected and a staggering 72,000 have died—40 percent of all deaths so far.
This strong age bias in the mortality rate should be considered along with other biases. Blacks are two and a half times as likely to end up dead from the virus as whites, and Hispanics one and a half times. (My cohort, the over-85s, is more than 80 percent white, compared to 61 percent of the overall population.)
All this has the appearance of a cull, albeit one that is progressing in the absence of an effective national policy of intervention and control rather than one that is actually directed. How convenient.
Just look at it from the nakedly amoral Trumpian standpoint: America’s 85-plus population had been projected to more than double, from 6.5 million now to 14.4 million by 2040. Since 2010, the number of 65-plus Americans has grown by nearly 35 percent, pushing the national median age up from 37.2 to 38.4 years. The number of people over 90, which was 720,000 in 1980, reached 1.9 million by 2010 and the Census Bureau expects it to quadruple over the next four decades. Someone who reaches 90 is now expected to live at least another 4.6 years.
Largely as a result of all that, Medicare and Social Security costs as a percentage of GDP are predicted to rise from 8.5 percent now to 15.5 percent by 2050.
The virus is, therefore, doing a great job achieving what the Republicans have frequently failed to achieve—systematically slashing the future burden of entitlements or, as Trump might put it, removing a lot of suckers and losers.
Part of the problem has nothing to do with Trump, although it greatly helps him. The nation has become numb to the numbers.
I am reading Lesley Blume’s compelling new book, Fallout, the story of how the New Yorker writer John Hersey for the first time revealed in horrific detail the true extent of the human toll of Hiroshima. She writes:
“Every day during the war, gruesome death toll statistics were announced in American publications from fronts around the globe. The more zeroes attached to a statistic, the more unfathomable it was. Somewhere along the way, the numbers seemed to stop representing the bodies of actual people; the human element became divorced from the tallies.”
And our numbers are now getting worse at frightening speed. In a little over six months under Trump’s watch the deaths are already nearing 200,000—almost half of the total of more than 407,000 American soldiers killed over four years during World War II. That is a mind-boggling indictment of the total lack of leadership.
What we are missing in this national tragedy, as we did during World War II, is the felt intimacy. (We had that after 9/11 because the toll of a little more than 3,000 was instant and focused.)
Every single death occurs in a world gripped with its own kinds of private grief. The terrible toll in my age group specifically means that families are losing fathers and mothers, children their grandparents, much sooner than they ever expected, and often in a harsh, remote and summary way.
Alongside that suffering is the continuing burden placed on hospitals as the pandemic rolls through new territory— the Sun Belt, Midwestern states, and even into the remote valleys of West Virginia, overwhelming them with levels of distress like those first seen in New York at the onset of the pandemic, and for which they were never prepared.
Nonetheless, this relentless carnage has for many people been pushed into the background, as was the reality of the wartime killing fields. That’s often not so much callous indifference as it is a way of coping with harrowing personal priorities. After all, there is economic carnage, too. Millions of families are struggling to keep food on the table and hold on to homes with the threat of eviction hanging over them.
I get that. But we should really be awake to what’s coming this fall when the pandemic converges with the flu season.
My wife and I, both 87, have learned to live in a carefully protective bubble. We always wear masks on our regular daily walks in Sag Harbor, where we live, but we increasingly feel like cranks because nobody else does any more—with New York enjoying a record low infection rate people have become careless, particularly the young who whip arrogantly by us running or biking, barely making way.
If Trump does have a policy it has been reduced to two tracks, neither of which is going to help anyone. The first is demonstrated by the appointment as “pandemic adviser” to the White House of Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who caught the president’s attention by promoting the idea of herd immunity on Fox News appearances.
“We can allow a lot of people to get infected,” he said. “Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected, generating immunity on their own, and the more immunity in the community, the better we can eradicate the threat of the virus.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, the new dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a widely respected expert on public health policy, responded, “He has no expertise in any of this stuff.”
The second is Trump’s desperate hope of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat by announcing just before the election that his “warp speed” program to produce a vaccine has worked—something not even the makers of vaccines are ready to claim as a realistic time frame.
If there is any consolation to be found right now, it lies in the uncharitable thought that Trump himself is unlikely to join the ranks of the oldest old. His obesity and his dietary habits, as well as other hints of debility, will take care of that.