The coronavirus crisis in nursing homes is an indictment of our societies

As in most countries, a large proportion of coronavirus deaths in France are taking place in nursing homes. Of 32,000 deaths in France, about 14,000 were in nursing homes. Confirmed cases and deaths are rising again for the first time in months.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted this week that “our elders, more fragile, are more exposed to the virus. We must collectively redouble our attention.”

But do public authorities have their priorities right? A French website for healthcare workers, Infirmiers, recently published a powerful and thoughtful open letter from doctors, nurses, sociologists and philosophers. They complain that a fundamental misunderstanding of human society explains why the elderly have been abandoned. Below are a few paragraphs.

First of all, the authors recall that many elderly people are hurt and bewildered. They cannot understand their isolation, even if it is for their own good.  

"Why am I suffering this way? Are we victims of a plague? Who has the right to steal my freedom? I have become a prisoner but I have committed no crime. Doesn’t anyone respect the charter of the elderly? Why are they stopping me from finding my husband who has been dead for 25 years? Why are you afraid of me? Why have you left me alone? Why have you kept me from the people I love?”

The situation in the nursing homes was truly bleak:

Let us recall that between March 10 and May 10, 2020, … only masked caretakers came discretely to wash them, to bring them their meals, to give them their medicines. But no one came to take them for a walk, to cut their meat, to lead them to a meeting. No more physiotherapy, no more exercise, no more speech therapy to fight against the loss of physical autonomy.

The authors’ central point is that death of the spirit may be no less serious than death of the body.

Is confinement the only way to prevent death? Certainly not, since death is inevitable ... But which death are we talking about here? Obviously, it is characterized by its secondary causality in relation to the virus -- the primary cause of our mortality is that we were born.  

Is relational death less serious than biological death? Is it enough to be "not dead yet" to still be a living person carrying a meaningful existence?

And they point out that the heroes of Western culture were not Robinson Crusoes who lived lives of isolated autonomy, but people who were ready to give up their lives for others.

Let us remember our ancestors. They preferred the quality of relationships to the quantity of life.

Consider Socrates. From what Plato tells us, Socrates did not choose hemlock in order to die. Rather, he was refusing to be deported to an island and confined there, banned from talking to the youth of Athens. By drinking hemlock, he showed that he wanted to be faithful to his ideals and to continue, through his fidelity, to remain in relation with the young people he had accompanied.

Consider Sophocles and Antigone. She preferred to be faithful to her link to her brother rather than blindly follow a law which would have destroyed her dignity.

Consider resistance fighters for whom the need for relationships in freedom is worth more than the risk of losing one's life.

Consider the monks of Tibhirine who never wanted to die, but who chose to remain among the people of the country they loved, not abandoning them even if it meant their death.  

Consider healthcare workers, especially those in war-torn countries or who work in the face of deadly viruses like Ebola. They dare to relate to those who suffer at the risk of dying.

And this is their fundamental point. Human beings are social beings. Treating people’s physical needs is certainly necessary, but not sufficient.

A human being is essentially a being who is born into relationships, who lives thanks to their bonds, who is heir to past relationships. How can we fail to understand that cutting these ties and hiding people away is not only undignified but destructive and inhuman? …

Let us remember the motto of palliative care which emphasizes again and again the importance of relationships. Since living means adding life (quality of relationship) to days rather than wanting at all costs to add days to life (quantity of days).

These aberrations that we denounce profoundly undermine the mission of residential institutions. In these places the elderly ought to be recognized, pampered, and cared for and not infantilized, restrained or instrumentalized …

Finally, how can we not end our protest with this wonderful comment by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard in his preface to Martin Buber’s I and Thou: Le moi s’éveille par la grâce du toi, The self awakens through the grace of the You.

Let us dare to forge public policy in which faith in humanity goes beyond fear. Let us hope that history will one day judge us, not on our fears, but how we dared to relate to others and to maintain social cohesion.

The letter was written by Alain de Broca, a doctor and philosopher; Eugénie Poret, an anthropologist, and Myriam le Sommer-Père, a doctor and co-signed by about 20 others.


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