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Kathy Sheridan on Covid-19: Compulsion to pigeonhole groups of people is damaging

Virus has introduced a new loaded label, ‘elderly with underlying conditions’

We get it. Covid-19 is delivering a smart kick in the communal backside. No part of our lives remains untouched. We are levelled. We are isolated, shrouded in dread, grieving for the time and the hugs of loved ones that are lost to us for now.

It’s hardly surprising if the loss is felt more keenly by older generations. Many of these are individuals who never saw themselves as “elderly” but now see time galloping away. Vulnerabilities are suddenly laid bare. Lives already fraying a little round the edges, lives already punctuated by loss and grief, lives already a little cluttered with hospital appointments that rarely end in great news were nonetheless lives that seemed grand, or at least manageable enough for their owners, until stamped with the label, “elderly with underlying conditions”.

The compulsion to pigeonhole groups of people is damaging

The label is accurate. It describes the kind of person most likely to be whisked away by Covid-19, the kind who in an unflattened curve may lose the ventilator to someone with healthier lungs, more responsibilities, more years to live. That’s fair enough. The label was also designed no doubt, to convey some reassurance to everyone else; ie, look, you’re under 65 and lack an underlying condition, it probably won’t kill you so stay the hell calm.

The older ones are probably reconciled. A constant narrative has informed them that they ravaged the earth for their selfish, greedy, individualistic pleasures. They voted for Brexit, Trump and Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. If Covid-19 is terrorising a world poleaxed by unpreparedness and exposing economic systems designed by sociopaths, whose fault is that?


On a conference call with 60 chief executives last week, British prime minister Boris Johnson joked that his ventilator appeal could be dubbed “Operation Last Gasp”. Hysterical.

After our general election in early February, an academic commented that it wasn’t “so much a youthquake . . . [but] the last gasp of the pensioners that are holding the old party system together”.

What other demographic would be represented so crudely without some serious blowback?

In the wake of the election, platforms were buzzing with congratulations for the young generations, who – to summarise many posts – legalised same-sex marriage, decriminalised abortion and, in what many assumed to be the anticipated “youthquake”, broke the decades-old Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael duopoly in just a few years. A few older voices interjected to protest that they too had played a role, that such social revolutions are built on decades of brave and thankless campaigning, laying the groundwork brick by miserable brick. Some even pointed out that both FG and FF had a necessary hand in the referendums and that it’s entirely possible to believe in two different things at the same time, or one thing and not the other.

Anyway, it soon became clear that there had been no youthquake. For every vote cast by people aged under 35, roughly two were cast by those aged 50 and older. Exit poll extrapolations by Kieran O’Leary of Ipsos MRBI indicated that people under 35 accounted for less than 65,000 of the additional votes Sinn Féin received.

The point is not that older generations are sinless nor that young people are feckless; the point is that the compulsion to pigeonhole groups of people is damaging.

Covid-19 has hurled everything in the air. Everything that is measurable, comparable and contrastable is thrown into dazzling relief. As the tide goes out around the world, each country, each community, each individual life, is exposed in all its nakedness and neediness.

Human calamity at a personal or global level will always lead to an urgent search for meaning but first we must find someone to blame. So, should we start with the authorities who refused to name the first virus-hit school? The die-hards who went to Cheltenham? The young ones filmed dancing in a housing estate at the weekend? The reckless daytrippers who kept driving towards crowded beauty spots? The startling queues for takeaways?

Sure they needed a break but does that make it all right? The truth is that a thread of greed, individualism and entitlement runs through every generation.

Meanwhile, we look towards Washington DC where House speaker Nancy Pelosi and the eminent immunologist, Dr Anthony Fauci with other battling souls, form a human bulwark against the malignant corporatism and narcissism of US president Donald Trump. Pelosi turns 80 tomorrow, Fauci is 79. Bernie Sanders, the millennials’ choice for the US presidency until he wasn’t, is 78. David Attenborough, Earth’s most influential, longstanding climate advocate, is 93.

At the other end of the scale, there is no shortage of millennial-age leaders in international politics or in the C-suites of the world-dominating Silicon Valley. The leaders of France (42), Austria (33), Ukraine (42), New Zealand (39), North Korea (33) and Ireland (41) are young by most standards. Mark Zuckerberg who presides over Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram is only 35.

What the lists say is that age tells us nothing about a person’s compassion, wisdom, resilience, battling heart or contribution to mankind. And that those lost to us through Covid-19 represent a great deal more than a label.