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This fact sensitizes me to the uneven, and politicized, state of mask wearing in my town. In the food co-op, the scoops for bulk foods—grains, granola, nuts—are used once and collected in a box. No such precautions at Rite Way Sports, where customers are free to pick up a container of night crawlers, a Beretta M9 semiautomatic handgun, or a case of Covid-19.
To many around here, the virus is an abstraction. Caledonia County, among the most rural in the state, has had 25 cases—less than one in 100,000—and no deaths. In all of Vermont, just over 1,400 people have sickened and 57 died. As elsewhere, the dying are old. Only two have been under 60.
Sidelined by rural isolation and elderly caution, I watch videos of the Black Lives Matter uprisings and police brutality and federal military invasions and feel my emotions swinging between radical hope and apocalyptic terror. Hope inspired by the diversity and militancy of the protesters; terror, by the flash-bangs and teargas and an awareness of the future these young folks face. I note they almost all wear masks, acknowledgement of their outsize vulnerability as Black and brown people, but also, to my eyes, of concern for their elders. Tenderness overwhelms me.
Then I switch to videos of maskless twentysomethings crowding beaches and bars, and I seethe. The phrase kids these days springs uninvited to mind.
Such mixed feelings are not rare among my contemporaries; the rigidly disapproving oldster is a caricature. Yet how easily we can be caricatured. Here is the usually nuanced political analyst, labor and health care historian Gabriel Winant, in “Coronavirus and Chronopolitics,” in n+1:
There is a great contradiction embodied in the facts that the virus is fundamentally a threat to the old; that this threat has been magnified enormously by the incompetence and malice of the ruling regime; and that the old are the primary mass political constituency of that regime. The coincidence in time of the outbreak of coronavirus in the United States and the crushing of Bernie Sanders’s bid to democratize our health system and face the related crisis of climate change—a defeat inflicted through extreme generational polarization—intensifies this contradiction further. The young are trying to save the old, as well as themselves; the old are trying to kill the young, as well as themselves.
Emphasis mine, as in, WTF, Gabe?
Winant quotes sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen, coiner of chronopolitics: “As the necessity of financial cuts mounts, the need for trade-offs mounts.”
What “necessity” for cuts and trade-offs? You mean austerity?
Adds Winant: “The old have formed into battalions to mount a defense of the predatory and destructive capitalism we have known.”
What battalions? The AARP?
In fact, as older Americans drop dead from the coronavirus, the economic shutdown is slamming senior workers as hard as the youngest cohort. Age discrimination means most elders won’t work again. Drawing down savings or going into debt, “people who are middle-class workers now will be poor or near-poor retirees for the rest of their lives,” says economist Teresa Ghilareducci.
“Entitlements” don’t go far. In 2019, a third of Social Security recipients relied solely, or almost solely, on that benefit, which averaged $1,461 a month. Medicare, deducted from a person’s Social Security but increasingly privatized, costs more and covers less. Out-of-pocket bills consume, on average, 40 cents of each dollar of recipients’ income; by age 85, the portion rises to three-quarters. A 2013 analysis predicted that the ranks of the homeless old would swell by a third between 2010 and 2020. What now?
We rarely list age among intersectional oppressions. But deep in the genocidal US pandemic, there it is. Why are 48 of the top 50 Covid clusters prisons and jails? It’s not only racial health disparities and overcrowding, says the Marshall Project. Because of ever-longer sentences, inmates over 55 make up a larger share of state prison populations than those 24 and under. Chronic illnesses render them easy marks for Covid-19.
“The young are not interested in reducing old-age benefits but rather increasing other ones,” says Winant. But who are the young? Paul Ryan, elected to Congress at 29, spent his career trying to feed the poor and the old into the jaws of Republican swamp creatures. Neil Gorsuch, corporate proxy on the Supreme Court, is a Gen-Xer.
Alicia Garza is the same age as Jared Kushner, 39. Angela Davis is two years older than Mitch McConnell. The young people crowding the beaches are not the young people being gassed in the streets.
Winant concludes with a call to solidarity: “Our survival depends upon resolving the antagonisms that have separated us and joining together against the regime of capital accumulation that has brought us to this precipice.” Yet having condemned his elders for starting the fight, he doesn’t absolve them.
Similarly here, amid paeans to protecting “our” elders, the governor declares Vermont’s aging population a “crisis.” Voters are never told why an older populace—that is, increasingly, themselves—is the problem, especially given that in the coming depression their Social Security checks may be the one reliable source of state revenues.
I come not to praise, or plead for, my generation. But, younger comrades, don’t blame us for the policies that will bury us—or you. History makes us, not age. No generation holds greater claim to justice or greater responsibility for attaining it.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.