November 11, 2020 - 8:30am

Six years ago, a distinguished American oncologist published an essay in The Atlantic. In ‘Why I Hope to Die at 75’ Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel argued that for most people “creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone” by 75.

Accordingly, society as a whole would be improved if nature took “its course swiftly and promptly”. Medicine has extended life spans, but it has done little to make life worth living in old age, Emanuel argued at the time:

Here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
- Dr Ezekiel J. Emanuel

On Monday, Dr Emanuel was one of 10 advisory board members appointed to Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force. This is potentially awkward for Biden — not least because at 77 he is a few months beyond the age Dr Emanuel believes we cease to be much use to anyone. Previously, Emanuel was a special advisor in the Obama White House, and prominent in shaping the policy for Obamacare between 2009-11. The battle over that legislation included claims by Sarah Palin that federal health insurance would lead to “death panels” — bodies of bureaucrats who would decide who was worthy of medical attention, and who would be left without it.

This was a fantasy, of course. Emanuel does not support assisted suicide either, though it’s legal in nine US jurisdictions, and has been in Oregon since 1997. Still, now that he is going to be involved in directing healthcare policy that seeks to protect millions of elderly from Covid-19, Emanuel’s appointment looks a bit like a political own-goal. Donald Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted a screenshot of the piece, as did influential Arkansas senator Tom Cotton. If you search for “death panel” on Twitter you’ll see that the term is back in vogue.

Perhaps more than any other Western nation, in the United States the pandemic has become a culture war battleground. Arguments about masks and lockdowns have been as polarised as conflicts over abortions and gun laws, splitting right down party lines. There has been a 17 point drop since 2019 in the number of Americans who believe that vaccines are good for their health, and that of their families.

During the campaign, Biden repeatedly told Americans to prepare for a “very dark winter”. The appointment of Dr Emanuel probably isn’t the best way to start it.