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Israel's Ageist COVID Policy

Sara Halperin
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Woman being vaccinated at Maccabi medical center in Jerusalem, earlier this month.
Woman being vaccinated at Maccabi medical center in Jerusalem, earlier this month. Credit: Emil Salman
Sara Halperin

Israel now leads the world in the number of verified COVID-19 patients per capita. The number of seriously ill patients is rising, and with it the number of patients needing intensive care and ECMO machines—of which there’s a limited number. The pandemic is raging, and the state is about to increase the infection rate by canceling quarantine requirements for school children.

The people who will pay the price of this policy are senior citizens, who have the highest risk of becoming seriously ill and requiring medical treatment. Even though government policy is increasing their risk of becoming sick, once they get sick, the health system denies them optimal care due to their age.

Israeli hospitals have a severe shortage of intensive care beds – the fewest of all the OECD countries relative to population. While the OECD average is 11.5 intensive care beds for every 100,000 people, Israel has four.

Consequently, hospitals have to decide who should receive a bed in the intensive care unit, and the main criterion is the patient’s age. The elderly are less likely to receive a hospital bed as their chances of surviving are significantly lower.

The elderly are also discriminated against when it comes to treatment with ECMO devices. In September, Ynet news reported that the Israeli health system bars doctors from putting patients over 65 on ECMO machines.

Coronavirus ward at Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, this month. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The daily Israel Hayom recently interviewed six hospital directors about the current coronavirus wave under the headline “No panic.” Instead of raising an outcry on behalf of the senior citizens who are dying prematurely after being refused intensive care or ECMO treatment, these hospital directors chose to send a calming message to readers.

Prof. Yoram Weiss, acting director general of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, stood out with his comments. He was quoted saying he believes “we have to preserve the economy and a sense of normalcy in this country.” That would be a fitting statement from a Finance Ministry official, but not from a doctor entrusted with saving patients’ lives.

Israel is exercising an ageist policy whose impact on the elderly population has been murderous. Popular sentiment on the topic can be understood best by reading comments on the internet. Some support this homicidal policy, writing comments such as, “It's not so bad; the only ones getting seriously ill and dying are the elderly, who would die anyway.”

But others bemoan this abandonment of senior citizens, writing bitter comments like, “The country wants us when we’re young, going to the army and paying taxes, but when we’re old, it throws us to the dogs.” Or, “The government is contributing to the economy and saving the retirement funds and insurance companies money by liquidating senior citizens.”

On the decision to end quarantines in schools, one commenter wrote jokingly, “Tali, tell the class what you did on your vacation.” The imaginary Tali replied, “I killed grandma, and I put grandpa into the intensive care unit for a month.” But in reality, we know grandpa would never have been given a bed in the ICU.

For the past three weeks, my husband and I have kept our four young children home from preschool and school, in part because we don’t want to do something evil – contributing to mass infection by a virus that causes premature death among senior citizens – just because the law permits it. We want to raise our children on the values of social solidarity and the sanctity of life, values that are gradually being eroded in Israel.

Sara Halperin is a geriatric social worker and psychotherapist.

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