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Jill Derby: Don’t throw our elders under the bus

By Jill Derby

In the midst of the tumultuous events shaping the 2020 landscape, there is an uncomfortable sense of disconnect emerging between how we thought of ourselves as Americans and who we are discovering ourselves to be in the face of so much stress and disruption in our lives.

The rejection by so many of the advice of health experts to social distance and wear masks — particularly to protect vulnerable others against the spread of the virus — leaves a foreboding sense of selfishness and convenience trumping any commitment to the welfare of fellow citizens and to the common good.

America stands alone in the global community in this dynamic of citizens claiming personal freedom infringement or unfounded conspiracy concerns as grounds to refuse CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Where is a spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together facing a common enemy?

Elders are first among those mentioned as particularly vulnerable, so let me say a word about elders in America. I had the unexpected pleasure of celebrating my 60th birthday in Japan while visiting there. Advised to wear a red vest to signal the occasion, I was delighted to be greeted by strangers with bows and other expressions of congratulatory respect. My Japanese escort explained to me that people were acknowledging my transition to a position of high regard.

My three-year experience of living in the Arab Middle East, and my studies in cultural anthropology equipped me then and now with the understanding that the majority of the world cultures and societies do in fact value their elders in a manner contrary to the American custom.

Our youth-focused culture (Hollywood’s influence) is not likely to change its values regarding elders, but the pressing message of the moment in this deadly pandemic goes to the core of America values and the soul of the nation. An unstated subtext of elders (and other vulnerable groups) as somewhat expendable for the sake of economic normalcy is what lies beneath the surface of a narrative regarding economic recovery before all else.

Whatever the economic case that undergirds such thinking, and it deserves a hearing, the moral case stands out as compelling, and must be considered for the sake of our national conscience. Our international standing is at risk as well, already damaged by perceptions of incompetence and disarray. America has been admired around the world for its values and its belief in the worth of the individual. It is not an either/or equation. Both values of economic recovery and protecting the vulnerable can be weighed as compatible goals. Capitalism only works for all when the common good remains a central precept.

God knows we have downplayed moral considerations throughout our history as a nation — indigenous cultures, slavery and long reach into the present, Japanese internment, to name a few. We have amends to make to those who have suffered to redeem ourselves and our history of moral failure.

Let’s not add to the list by throwing our seniors and vulnerable others under the bus in the pursuit of a rushed return to economic normalcy.

Jill Derby is former chair of Nevada Board of Regents