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COVID and healthism

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Here’s a little snippet from this morning’s NYT story about the toll COVID has taken on the nation’s elderly (1 in every 100 people 65 or older in the USA has died from COVID since the start of the pandemic in February of last year):

Some older people who have spent decades shrugging off traditional notions of age have chafed at the notion that they personally belong to an at-risk group at all, or that people 65 and older can be lumped together. Throughout the pandemic, Billy Simmons, a 71-year-old organic farmer in central Iowa, said that he had not taken public health warnings about his age too seriously, reasoning that he rarely gets sick, never sits around watching television and has been a vegetarian throughout his life.

Mr. Simmons, who decided not to be vaccinated, said he does not pay attention to the public health guidance that people who are older are more vulnerable in the pandemic. “I’m a lot healthier than people I know who are 20 years younger than me,” he said. “I don’t think they talk enough about your level of stamina and healthiness. If you’re 65 and older but very healthy and you eat well and you don’t oversleep, then you might not have so much to be concerned about it.”

A bunch of things going on here that are relevant to the pandemic’s broader social and political significance.

(1) The idea that society is divided into healthy people, who are healthy because they live healthy lifestyles, and unhealthy people, who are unhealthy because they live unhealthy lifestyles. This idea is rampant across the ideological spectrum in this country. You see it all the time among libertarian techbros (“try this Soylent!“), and traditional conservatives (“no wonder those people are dying, what with the drugs and the promiscuity and the baggy pants”). But it’s also extremely common among liberals and leftists; hence the ill-gotten fortunes piled up by various vaguely left woo-slingers of the Gwyneth Paltrow/Marianne Williamson variety.

The moral panic over fat in American society is almost completely a product of this idea. See for example the constant broadcasting of the small or non-existent or indeed even inverse relationship between COVID risk and fat as some sort of significant risk factor, with the underlying message being some version of if you die from COVID it’s your fault, because you didn’t live a “healthy lifestyle,” conceptualized on the left as involving a Peloton and a lot of whole grain something, and on the right as huntin’ and fishin’ in the great outdoors or what have you.

(2) The broader idea here is that your health is something that’s fundamentally under your control, so you should be responsible for the consequences of getting sick, since if you got sick it’s your fault. I hope the self-evident absurdity of this idea is, uh, self-evident, and I don’t have to go into any detail why Mr. Organic Farmer quoted above is totally delusional. Ah what the heck: the average 71-year-old is about seventy times more likely to die from COVID than the average 20-year-old, which is the kind of risk ratio that obviously has little to do with anything other than simple aging, no matter how organic and vegetarian your diet may be, and how early you get up in the morning.

(3) All of this nonsense was a crucial pre-COVID component of anti-vax ideology, and clearly continues to play a huge role in it during the pandemic (“I don’t need to get vaccinated because I’m healthy.”). On the left this idea is invariably mixed up with various types of woo, typically associated with the word “organic” in some way, while on the right it’s generally more directly connected to good old fashioned racism, and the idea that the stronger, purer, healthier race must not be contaminated by the dirty sick caravans of foreigners invading the pure realm of the volk.

This is not to deny that obsession with “purity” as a component of health among liberals and leftists has racist elements: it very clearly does. See e.g., the extent to which fat panic among upper-class white liberals is expressed in open horror at the “obesity epidemic” among the blacks and the Mexicans, who eat all that terrible fried food they buy at Wal-Mart etc. etc.

In this as in so many other ways, the COVID pandemic has merely highlighted various pre-existing pathologies in American society, rather than created them outright.

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