What is and what isn’t eugenics?

A bearded white man wearing dark blue scrubs and a plastic apron, standing, injects a female nurse, seated in light blue scrubs, in the upper arm.
A nurse receives a Covid-19 vaccination

As more and more of the British population has received vaccination against Covid-19, it has been reported that most of the people who are still becoming very ill with the virus are the unvaccinated, which is to be expected; the vaccine only became available last year and was rolled out to the very elderly and the clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) who had been shielding at home since the previous March, with the vaccines becoming available to younger and younger age groups as the year progressed. There have been news reports of people who were fit and healthy contracting and dying of the disease having thought that the virus was too new and had been rushed onto the market, or that they were too young and strong to get seriously ill from it, let alone die. In Spring 2020, the health service was very largely geared towards treating people with the disease and preventing anyone else from becoming ill, with the result that cancer treatment for many people was stopped and other essential services conducted on a very austere basis, with labouring women refused family support, for example. Vaccines were being rolled out to the middle-aged at the same time as the second or Alpha wave died down in mid-2021. As it is now possible for people of any age to receive vaccinations, there has been impatience expressed that some people are still refusing them when this makes them more susceptible to catch the virus, get seriously ill or transmit it, and there has been some anger expressed that such refusers are taking up beds in Intensive Care units at the expense of people who needed the bed to recover from necessary surgery. This article was cited as an example, although the patient in question was dying of cancer rather than needing surgery.

Someone alleged that doctors were being “encouraged to be so angry at people who caught a virus, and pitting them against those with cancer like it’s a competition of who is most righteous”. It’s true that some diseases (including some cancers) and some injuries are down to lifestyle choices, but also, some are not, and some of these lifestyle choices may have been made decades ago and been hard to reverse (e.g. starting smoking). However, I don’t think the doctors are angry at having to treat unvaccinated people with Covid-19 per se, but at having to choose between them and people who got ill through no fault of their own, often having the choice made for them by the Covid patient coming in and taking up the bed that the person with cancer needed to recover from surgery. The system chooses who lives and who dies by imposing that principle that the ‘emergency’ takes precedence over the ‘elective’, even if the ‘elective’ is actually necessary for their survival and time-limited. If someone does not get the surgery in time, the cancer grows and becomes inoperable. Such things were happening before Covid, and could have been put down to funding decisions by government that left the NHS unable to deliver normal medical treatment and deal with things like seasonal flu. During the peaks of the Covid pandemic, before vaccines, hospitals had no choice but to cancel such surgeries as there were simply too many Covid patients. But in these situations, the person with Covid got seriously ill when the vaccine would have meant they would have got only mildly so, or not at all, and took up an ICU bed that someone else needed, resulting in avoidable damage to that person’s health, or worse, their death.

This is not how eugenics normally works; it normally discriminates in favour of the ‘fitter’, those who are actually or apparently stronger, more intelligent, healthier. The discrimination in favour of the unvaccinated Covid patient discriminates in favour of the young or middle-aged person who had been in good health and refused the vaccine because they thought they were too strong to get ill or chose to believe myths such as that Covid itself was a hoax or just a bad cold or that the vaccine was some sort of plot to make people infertile, against a person whose body may be weakened by the cancer or the treatment for it, who may have a genetic predisposition to it, who may suffer recurrence, who may become disabled, who may have other chronic illnesses. This is closer to eugenics than the alternative, of allowing the cancer patient the surgery and subsequent ICU bed they had been promised, which may mean that the Covid patient is turned away, or has to wait to be admitted.

It might not be possible to identify who refused the vaccine for no good reason and who, for example, had genuine worries about their health that they felt had not been addressed, felt that reported side effects might hit them particularly badly, or had suffered adverse reactions to previous vaccines (e.g. when travelling abroad). Press reports about unvaccinated people who died often mention why they had refused to get the vaccine but the facts might not be so easy to ascertain at the moment when someone needs an ICU bed. But I can well understand why doctors are angry at having to deny people life-saving surgery because an arrogant fool who refused the vaccine and became seriously ill, ultimately costing one or two lives that could have been saved very easily.

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