Coronavirus and the prospect of mass involuntary euthanasia

The idea that elderly bodies are expendable amid the pandemic has a dark history.

Hill Health Center nursing home
Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) wheel a man out of the Cobble Hill Health Center nursing home in New York, US on April 17, 2020 [Reuters/Lucas Jackson]

On March 20, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the “New York State on PAUSE” Executive Order, cancelling large public gatherings, shutting down non-essential businesses and requiring people to practise social distancing to stem the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus in the state.

The governor dubbed the order “Matilda’s law” in honour of his own 88-year-old mother to assure senior citizens of New York that, in his efforts to tame the ravaging death tolls of COVID-19, he would not compromise the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable citizens of his state, particularly the elderly.  

The measure, which was extended until June 13, gained praise from Americans fed up with President Donald Trump’s babbling response to the pandemic and helped Cuomo emerge as a sagacious national leader with a modicum of sanity about him. The fact that the governor felt the need to reassure the elderly that he does not see their lives as “expendable”, however, spoke of the terror many older Americans feel at the prospect of being dispensed with, in the rush to get the economy back on track.  

Sacrificed on the Dow Jones altar 

Elderly Americans are indeed scared that their commander-in-chief, who could not think of a public health issue except in militaristic terms, may sacrifice their lives as “collateral damage” in his rush to salvage what is left of the capitalist machinery of the American economy to secure his re-election. And their fears are not unfounded. 

On March 22, just a few days after Cuomo announced his PAUSE order, Trump declared on Twitter that: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself” and implied that he is willing to end the lockdown and reopen the economy before the virus is fully under control. 

A few days later, Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, told the president’s preferred TV network, Fox News, that Americans over 70 would be happy to die to have “the economy” reopened.  No one in any remaining civilised part of the world could fathom such bald-faced barbarity.

On April 15, celebrity physician and informal adviser to Trump, Dr Mehmet Oz, appeared on the same network to offer his contribution to this barbaric call for sacrificing the old and the weak on the altar of the Dow Jones, and suggested that schools should be opened to help the country return to normalcy because “only 2 to 3 percent more people may die” as a result. In a population of 320 million human beings ravaged by a highly infectious disease that has already killed over 88,000 people, that 2 to 3 percent equates to thousands of more lives lost.  

As journalist Chauncey DeVega explained in a blunt piece for Salon, “Donald Trump and the Republican Party are now openly willing to sacrifice those Americans they consider to be useless eaters” in an effort to “save capitalism”. 

What was merely presumed or suspected before is now in full disclosure.  

In the now nearly half a century I have lived in the US I had never witnessed such a bold, vicious, cruel demonstration of the laws of the jungle ruling this country. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, one could now see in broad daylight the cruelty that was at work in the mass murder of Native Americans and the business of transatlantic slavery.  

In good old liberal fashion, the Washington Post and the New York Times opened forums to discuss “the morals” of the choice between sacrificing older people and getting “the economy” back on track, the “pros and cons” of the issue, as they say.   

Scarcely anyone in such mainstream outlets would question the very foundation of this economics of barbarism. They rarely mention that millions of Americans have been unemployed and living on the breadline long before the emergence of COVID-19, thanks to decades of neoliberal economic savagery.  

The once subconscious, now blunt and vulgar, desire to murder one’s elders is the logical conclusion of a culture of perpetual consumerist youth. The elders of the tribe have long passed their usefulness and have become a burden on the economy.      

From Nazi euthanasia to the posthuman body  

The policy of killing those who are deemed not useful for society was, of course, most notoriously experimented with during the Nazis’ reign in Germany and beyond. 

Nazis started practising direct medical killing, or euthanasia, for the supposed good of German society, long before the establishment of death camps. Nazi doctors, who practised involuntary euthanasia in hospitals, justified their actions by the use of the concept of ”life unworthy of life”.

First, they deemed “impaired” adults and children with mental health problems and disabilities as “unworthy of life” and marked them to be euthanised. In time, they expanded the concept to include those they considered to be racially inferior beings, paving the way for the Holocaust.  

In The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (1995), Henry Friedlander  detailed the rise of racist and eugenic ideologies which led initially to the “mercy killing” of disabled people and eventually to the mass murder of Jews and the Roma.       

Historians of the idea of “life unworthy of life” tell us that such thoughts as euthanasia would not emerge overnight but would be contingent on developments in biology, the behavioural sciences, ethics, law, and of course economics, that would have to facilitate such heinous practices. And it is precisely in the condition of the current coronavirus pandemic that we must be vigilant about such pernicious thoughts and practices. 

In the case of this pandemic the world faces now we also need to trace the current murderous sentiments to much earlier developments. In my book, Corpus Anarchicum: Political Protest, Suicidal Violence, and the Making of the Posthuman Body (2012), I argued in detail how the phenomenon of suicidal violence is predicated on a far more pervasive transmutation of the human body into a disposable entity, evident in a wide range of contemporary practices ranging from genetic engineering to abortion, organ transplant, physician-assisted suicide, and ultimately eugenics and euthanasia.  

In the 1980s the name of Dr Jack Kevorkian was synonymous with the phenomenon of physician-assisted suicide. In my book I argued that the deposition of elderly parents and grandparents in nursing homes away from their families was a prelude to this phenomenon of “mercy killing”, evidence of a culture of perpetual youth, as was the widespread practice of organ donation and organ transplants, all of which pointed to the formation of what in my book I have called “the posthuman body”.    

The myth of perpetual youth   

What we are witnessing in the heightened stages of COVID-19 here in the US is precisely this stage of marking dispensable bodies – bodies that have long since passed their economic usefulness, and as a result, are deemed to be disposable so “the economy” can resume feeding the fantasy of the perpetual youth.  

This perpetual youth believes in nothing – especially no metaphysics of any certainty – but in the kind of “science” that can sustain this phantasmagoric eternity of now and here. Social Darwinism, Malthusian law of depopulation and the survival of the fittest have now coalesced in an existential belief in nothing. This is what I mean by the phrase “posthuman body”, or corpus anarchicum, a body that begins with genetic engineering, and ends with suicidal violence, or in the selling of one’s organs or else disposed of on the altar of Dow Jones in mass involuntary euthanasia.  

Here predatory capitalism rules supreme, creates robotic consumers, and kills the superfluous like flies and viruses. We had a premonition of this world in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013) which depicts a ravaged planet Earth from which rich people like Trump and his ilk have run away to a luxurious space “Trump Tower,” as it were, and in which they continue their parasitical existence.   

It was precisely in this very world that in another film, Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008), we had seen two robots modelled on rich girl meeting poor boy, emerging as the last vestiges of our anthropomorphic humanity, soon after the ravaged Earth had yielded to starship Axiom.    

If you are binge-watching these days while sheltering at home, behold those two robots, Wall-E and Eve, as the premonition of our posthuman bodies – hopefully.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.