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Does the 'Let it Rip' approach have a eugenics problem?



In the early part of the twentieth century, Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin) used the latter’s work to argue that human breeding stock could be similarly improved. He would weed out the weakest and the less able and produce a sturdier race. He named this brave new science, eugenics. Others, most notoriously the Nazis, but also governments in Britain and North America, took these ideas and ran with them. Until recently, the crematoria of Hitler’s death camps were enough to remind most that this was not an idea consonant with actual human flourishing.

Until recently. It is true that people with disabilities have always had an uphill struggle justifying our existence (see, for example, this post from the (since deleted) account of the then social welfare minister in 2015, describing the ‘disability burden’):

The pandemic, however, has turned the disability community’s fears of increased discrimination into daily reality. While the pre-vaccine phase of lockdowns was accompanied by ableism and eugenics rhetoric (as I mentioned in my previous column on ableism and pandemic), the situation has only become worse. 

The decision seems to have been made by Federal and State governments (WA honourably excepted) that vaccines will be the principal line of defence against the virus. That, in itself, would be an inherently eugenicist approach (given that not only are vaccines not available for all of the population) but also that there are very few alternatives available for those at risk. Testing and even boosters are hard to come by and even the pretence that First Nations, elderly and disabled people enjoyed ‘priority’ (which was maintained for the original vaccines) has now been dropped when it comes to the required boosters. The failures to vaccinate people in group homes and sheltered workshops — and the accompanying toll in infections — gave real, if underreported, testimony as to how little disabled lives were valued.


"Many of these conditions on Dr Chant’s list are hardly rare — 1 in 5 Australians have diabetes and 2 in 3 are overweight or obese."


Increasingly, however, the quiet bit is being said out loud. ‘Underlying conditions’ is daily being used as a rhetorical device at government press conferences to minimise the harm done by the ‘Let it Rip’ approach. Covid-19 has now killed 3144 people (as at 24 January 2022). Since 1 January, when the ‘milder’ Omicron variant has been dominant, 903 people have died.

We have, however, been instructed not to grieve and to throw wide the doors to schools and businesses — even as hospitals are closing theirs, declaring ‘Code Brown’ as their capacity bursts. These deaths should be accepted as capitalism’s collateral since they are predominantly among those with an ‘underlying condition’ (who, presumably had it coming). The fittest will, after all, survive.

What then counts as an ‘underlying condition’? Well, as the NSW Chief Health Officer tells us, being over 65, having heart conditions, obese, asthmatic, immunocompromised, ‘a significant mental health illness’, a neurological disorder, autoimmune diseases, liver diseases, diabetes, cancer, being on a palliative care ‘pathway’ are all included. No mention need be made of who these people were, what their dreams or aspirations might have been or how they had survived until Covid came along.

In the old days, of course, a person with a mental illness who was hit by a bus was regarded as dying of bus rather than anything else. As social media user Peter Russell put it: ‘…waiting for the government to report details of a plane crash where 80 died, 50 of who had underlying health conditions, 26 had no insurance & 2 had pilot licences.’

Now, it might be that underlying conditions could be relevant to therapeutic interventions for a person presenting with COVID. In that case, though, it is presumably a matter between the treating physician and the patient and not something relevant to a news conference. Again, if a condition which increased the risk of COVID were lifestyle related, there might be a case for encouraging behaviours to avoid it. However, that is not what has happened in practice: as noted above, disabled people have been actively deprioritised in the governments’ COVID response. No, underlying conditions are reserved for announcements of deaths only.

People in the disability community have often had a hard time persuading folk who do not see themselves as such that ableism is a problem. Chronic pain, inaccessible text or catheterisation is not everyone’s experience — and so many can go through the world unaware of the issues which these things raise for accessibility in a world which is not designed to accommodate people who experience them.

The ‘underlying conditions as eugenics’ form of ableism — discounting the deaths of ‘lives unworthy of life’, as the Nazis so charmlessly put it — is not so easily dismissed. Many of these conditions on Dr Chant’s list are hardly rare1 in 5 Australians have diabetes and 2 in 3 are overweight or obese. The condition of being over 65 is likely to affect most Australians if they are luckyto say nothing of being a child under 5 who still has no access to a vaccine of any kind.

Once again, disability is about ‘us’ not ‘them’.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Frontline healthcare workers at St Vincent's Hospital adapt to life between the red and green zones. (Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn



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Existing comments

I must confess, as someone over 65 with Type 2 Diabetes and a few other health problems, I have been fortunate in the clinic I attend in Brisbane has ensured I am triple vaccinated. My wife, who has Alzheimer's and several other serious medical conditions, is triply vaccinated and in lockdown at her nursing home. We are both quite tough, and, properly isolated I hope we avoid COVID. I understand that others less fortunate may not be as lucky. The hospitals are full to capacity. Panic has set in and some people go there who should not. We need to look after the most serious cases first.

Edward Fido | 27 January 2022  
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You miss the point, dear Edward. Toughness and vigilance has nothing to do with it. While personal and individual response always plays a part in moral debate, it is government and public policy - the 'SOCIAL' justice aspects of the discussion - that are under scrutiny here and which Justin has the good sense and eloquence to highlight.

In last night's news, the Finance Minister, Simon Birmingham, played that other mean card up the sleeve of the eugenicists, which is the cost of expendable human lives to the budget blow-out, thereby reprising Christian Porter's miserly tweet.

At times like these it is the most vulnerable that must come first. Usually these are people who are far worse-off than ourselves, which is what makes it 'SOCIAL'!

Budgets can be repaired in times of plenty, while your distraction from the brutal logic of capitalism's 'suck it up' philosophy is but tangential (yet again?) to the main thrust of this exchange.

Michael Furtado | 30 January 2022  

I wince when the words ‘underlying condition’ are used in connection with Covid-19 deaths. Every person is valuable to society and the descriptor ‘underlying condition’ seeks to somehow explain the unexplainable. We are a rich country with more than enough resources for all. Surely taking care of each person in all their dignity and value should not be too difficult. The let it rip approach is not so much about deliberate obliteration of people as about a certain laziness and complacency.

Pam | 27 January 2022  

Dear Fr Glynn. I admire your stance and unwavering constancy in the quest for justice and equality for those disabled amongst us. However, I think the lenses on the glasses through which you view the current pandemic are perhaps in need of replacement. Dr Kerry Chant is far from an apologist for the 'let it rip' philosophy and has consistently argued for the correct medicine to be applied to the fight against the virus. She has quite correctly highlighted that those with underlying conditions are at greater risk of death or long term disability. the same applies to risk from any other virus and has not advocated the "let it rip" philosophy.

john frawley | 27 January 2022  
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That is far from Fr Glynn's point, Dr Frawley. Last night's ABC News clearly had Dr Chant explaining that the rapid increase in Nursing Home deaths from Covid-related infection in her state was linked with the relaxation of tighter lock-down measures, itself contingent upon a change in government policy.

To expect the state's Chief Health Adviser to directly address the ethical ramifications of state policy by critiquing capitalism's 'let it rip' policy is to appeal to the defense, when under threat, of an ostrich and, some might say, to engage in a hair-splitting exercise unworthy of an esteemed former medical administrator.

Michael Furtado | 30 January 2022  

This article does not even address the issue of how Christians in rich countries should act in sharing of limited Covid medical resources with less developed nations, In fact, a worthy subject for analysis by Eureka Street would be how medical resources should be ethically shared; for too long we have relied on the concept of "triaging" but there are other alternatives to the "first-in-first-served" or "most-rich-best-service" approaches. For example should we be supporting an approach that provides medical services that do the most good regardless of the age or ability of the individual concerned? Some argue that government should bite the bullet and give priority to the poor and needy and let the rest look after themselves. Then again utilitarianists might want to use resources that give the greatest extension to human life. At least this gets the debate beyond simply complaining that things are "crook" and comparing our society to Nazi Germany.

Daniel O'CONNELL | 27 January 2022  

In my opinion, the unavailability of RAT tests shows bureaucrats and politicians is absolutely outrageous. I find the let it rip and live with covid comments are just as shocking and imply to me the numerous people with a weakness are expendable for economic reasons

Peter | 28 January 2022  

Maybe the blame and shame attitude directed at people with underlying health conditions would better be directed at first world governments for their selfish blind approach to not supporting the vaccination programs in third world countries.

Janet Wright | 29 January 2022  

Disability burden eh? What about the billionaire burden? US$ 800 billion gained in 2021 by the top 10 billionaires alone.


anon | 30 January 2022  

Dr Chant was sidelined away from the daily updates on the pandemic in mid December, Michael F, when our new premier took the gamble of endearing himself to the electorate by ignoring the principles which had served us all very well during the first 2 years of the pandemic. Many eminent specialists in epidemiology warned against Perrottet's "freedom day, Dec 15" and were ignored. When it all went bottom up within a week, the premier assured us all that it was our fault, not his, and that we had to accept "personal responsibility" and learn to live with Covid. He has started wearing a mask again in public (a practice he abandoned for a couple of weeks because of our newfound freedom) and Dr Chant is again part of the background in the photoshoots and permitted the odd comment or two. The premier to date has not accepted any "personal responsibility" for the record deaths and long term disability that his failed tilt at popularity generated. I live in one of the safest Liberal seats in the country (last election the Labor party polled 701 votes) and it is difficult to find anyone who is not totally disillusioned with the current State and Federal Liberal Party. I reckon they will be done like a dinner at the coming elections unless something miraculous happens. Both the PM and the Premier are dedicated Christians, good men, but somewhat deluded. Perhaps they are depending on a miracle or two but the betting odds on a miracle are unlikely to bring a worthwhile return, I would think.

john frawley | 31 January 2022  
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'dedicated Christians, good men'

The problem with conservative Christian politics is that it’s trying to be OK (ie., it rolls over) in the two areas concerning intrinsic evils of the sin-sectors which ‘cry to Heaven for vengeance’ and wobbly in the two areas where the evils have to be responded to in a prudential manner.

roy chen yee | 01 February 2022  

'Scratch the Christian and you find the pagan - spoiled' (Zangwill, 'Children of the Ghetto', II, Ch. 6)

Michael Furtado | 08 February 2022  

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