The Covid nursing home scandal – what happened to the right to life?

Arthur Goldberg
May 21, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Human Dignity

Nearly 250 years ago the United States Declaration of Independence declared that "all men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life…" This "right to life" is premised upon a fundamental moral principle of the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that every life is a precious divine gift. Further, any actions sanctioned by governments should not undercut this right "endowed by their Creator." The present coronavirus pandemic and several governmental policies may belie this principle.

A recent example involved the governors of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, who ordered nursing homes and other long-term senior care facilities to admit medically stable residents that may have been infected with coronavirus. By inadequately protecting the frail and elderly in such facilities, higher levels of Covid-19 deaths have occurred. At the same time, we've witnessed an articulated strategy of locking down and quarantining the healthy. (How often in the past have the healthy, rather than the vulnerable, been quarantined?)

Phil Kerpen, president of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, informed a Laura Ingraham cable TV audience that in tracking nursing home Covid-19 deaths by state, his organization found that "nursing home deaths make up at least 60 percent of Covid fatalities in 10 states." Moreover, the number of states double to 20 if the threshold is lowered to at least a majority (50% or more) of a jurisdiction's fatalities. The high water marks in some states are over 80%. Almost no states showed less than a third of their state's share of deaths occurring in nursing homes and elderly care facilities.

Dr. Charles Camosy of Fordham University, writing in the New York Times, summarized the aggregate national number thus: "the best estimates right now are that about half of those who have died from Covid-19 have been nursing home residents." The present strategy of causing economic upheaval by stay at home orders for healthy people, rather than focusing on protecting our oldest and most vulnerable population, raises serious questions concerning our basic understandings of morality.

The initial containment strategy of lockdowns made sense in order to "flatten the curve" and to buy time for increasing health-care capacities, including personal protective equipment (PPEs), testing, and therapeutics. Yet the all or nothing approach of continuing to stay at home indefinitely has had huge negative consequences. The net effect of this policy is the unprecedented hit taken by the economy. It includes severe economic dislocations, skyrocketing unemployment, mental health concerns, and social isolation.

Based upon accepted scientific findings, those with pre-existing medical conditions and the older age population are at increased risk from this pandemic. Those in facilities for the elderly are clearly the most vulnerable. Using nursing homes to house recovering people created a situation where even more of the vulnerable and elderly resident patients would die. The staff in many of these facilities are also at increased risk of serious illness because of the lack of hospital type equipment and inadequate PPE. In spite of these obvious risks, the emphasis in several states, including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, did little to protect the nursing home population while simultaneously continuing the stay at home orders for the rest of the population.

The governors of these states ordered nursing homes to admit/readmit patients regardless of their Covid-19 status. A substantial number of reported Covid deaths in the country was the result of this stupid governmental policy. Part of the perceived rationale of these governors was to empty the hospitals in order to make space for the presumed influx of new patients. (Needless to say, the feared surge in hospitalizations never met their expectations.)

Other states chose to prioritise the frailty of nursing home residents. Louisiana prohibited nursing home facilities from admitting people who had tested positive for the virus or who were treated for respiratory problems, unless the nursing facility could show it had the capacity to care for them. Florida, with its huge population of elderly individuals, developed a series of aggressive measures to protect the frail and elderly residents of such facilities, including an early mandate not to allow hospitals to discharge Covid positive patients back into nursing homes. And, Connecticut sent Covid 19 positive residents into special facilities to stop the spread of the virus in nursing homes.

After much agitation, New York changed its policy, though New Jersey and Pennsylvania still retain their nursing home policy. Hospital patients in NY must now test negative for the coronavirus before they may be discharged from a hospital to a nursing home. No longer will New York nursing homes be forced to accept residents who were Covid-19 positive without providing the resources and protective equipment needed to care for these people. Is it simply a coincidence that the policies of liberal states like New York and New Jersey targeted old age care facilities as dumping grounds for Covid-19 cases?

As previously explained, an important philosophical and political foundation on which America was created involved a "right to life." However, the acceptance of newer cultural policies that are creating a culture of death, including abortion and assisted suicide, are now apparent in parts of our country. In these cases, death has been used as a medical treatment. We kill babies in the womb in an overwhelming number of states and permit euthanasia/assisted suicide in a handful of states.

During the pandemic, liberal states continue to allow abortions, declaring such procedures to be "essential services." Conversely, more conservative states with political cultures affirming the right to life have determined that abortions are "non-essential" services, thus blocking abortions during this epidemic. They include, for example, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. Even within conservative states, the culture of death lobby continues to challenge the culture to affirm life.

For example, the conservative state of Arkansas inaugurated a commonsense neutral rule requiring any person seeking elective surgery to test negative for Covid-19 for the 48 hours prior to the procedure. The ACLU sued the state to exclude procedures for abortion. However, siding with Arkansas, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a district court order that agreed with the ACLU by previously blocking Arkansas's pandemic response measures.

The same question of essential vs. non-essential services plays out regarding whether the pandemic will block access to medically-assisted suicide procedures. Even though assisted dying is legal in a half dozen U.S. states, it can be argued that such killing does not fit the definition of an "essential" service. "Death, in this time of war against a disease, no longer appears a comforting friend or a useful medical treatment," observes a British commentator. Throughout the world, clinics that actively engage in such treatments are split on whether medical assistance in dying programs ought to be suspended during the pandemic. Some have been. However, an encouraging sign is that palliative care facilities for the terminally ill within those jurisdictions have increased during the pandemic.

The founding documents of the American revolution are based upon universal moral values that require the protection of human life, even when that life lacks autonomy. These universal values are not only set forth in our country's founding documents but they are the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Protecting and maintaining life is paramount. There is no transgression more severe nor more injurious to civilization and society, than the killing of innocent human beings. We annihilate our humanity when we destroy the lives of old-age home residents, a life in the womb, or a dying person faced with an incurable illness.

Perhaps a healthy by-product of the pandemic will be to renew our emphasis on caring for others. The widespread death toll of the virus forces us to recognize the preciousness of all lives and the tragedy of all deaths. By choosing to invest in fighting this horrifying disease, a potential beneficial by-product may be to reestablish the kind of moral values that created our country and remain the basis of a just society.