Death panels: Carving out the vulnerable

Death panels were branded as inconceivable. Until 2020 and the Coronavirus. 

Until 2020, it would be hard to look a 90 year old in the eye and say that their life is worth less than an able-bodied young-adults. But the coronavirus has changed the traditional model for deciding which patient’s recieve care and which don’t.

Around the nation, many hospitals have become ships sinking under the neverending waves of sick patients. The coronavirus kills thousands of Americans every day, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. With limited medical resources like life-saving ventilators to go around, hospitals are scrambling to adhere to legal and moral guidelines when determining which patients get priority.  

Despite being dubbed as “Lie of the Year” in 2009, “death panels,” a political term coined by Sarah Palin referring to decisions based on one’s “level of productivity” has become an accurate depiction of the handling of COVID-19 cases. The term is now being recycled by the lips of President Trump, charging that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had not purchased enough ventilators and chose to go with “death panels and lotteries instead.”

For once, he isn’t far from the truth.

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, “Unlike decisions regarding other forms of life-sustaining treatment, the decision about initiating or terminating mechanical ventilation is often truly a life-or-death choice.” In other words, a patient under the care of Michigan’s system, which complies with state and national discrimination laws, is more likely to live then one in Chicago. These laws, namely the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, prohibits discrimination based on disabilities. States like Washington and Alabama have started a streak of denying ventilator access to disabled/older patients and this seemingly illegal practice has devastating effects on a patient’s friends and family.  

However, the most important question has yet to be asked: who gets to make these life-death decisions? More than likely, it is the clinicians and hospital essential workers that must step in and make the harrowing decision. Essentially, this has created an unprecedented dilemma amidst the pandemic that has no right answers. A dilemma, that doesn’t seem to be heavily addressed as a collective nation.

COVID-19 has strung 2020 onto a thin wire creating a moral dilemma between what is considered socially appropriate and what may save the most lives. 

There is a certain tone of reproach when speaking about carving out the most vulnerable in our society. The idea that we put the needs of the many able-bodied patients over that of ill-prone, vulnerable patients does not sit well in times that call for “unity” of the masses. But by rushing towards reopening the economy and ignoring social distancing protocols, we are only fueling the foundation for an unfortunate reality that includes death panels. All to say, 2020 is really not our year.

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