‘Level the Playing Field a Bit’: ‘Ethics Expert’ Implies Vaccines Shouldn’t Be Prioritized for Elderly Because They’re ‘Whiter’

By Mary Margaret Olohan Published on December 21, 2020

An ethics expert suggested that “whiter” elderly Americans should not be prioritized for coronavirus vaccines in order to “level the playing field a bit.”

A December New York Times story examines anxieties over who should receive the highly anticipated coronavirus vaccines first — the most vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with serious medical conditions, or essential workers.

Dr. Harold Schmidt, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, suggested to the Times that elderly white Americans should not be prioritized for receiving the vaccine in order to “level the playing field a bit.”

He said that putting essential workers ahead of the elderly is reasonable, noting that essential workers are disproportionately minorities, the Times reported.

“Older populations are whiter,” Schmidt told the Times. “Society is structured in a way that enables them to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.”

The associate professor encouraged the Center for Disease Control and Prevention committee to integrate its “social vulnerability index,” which uses “census variables to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, or after disasters.” Variables include overcrowded housing, lack of access to vehicles, and poverty.

Commentary associate editor Noah Rothman highlighted Schmidt’s suggestions in a Friday morning tweet.

“This is ghastly,” Rothman said. “This is the kind of dispassionate empiricism we’ve come to expect. Trust the science.”

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Rothman, who is the author of the 2019 book Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, added that he “warned you people about social justice.”

Schmidt emphasized to the DCNF that “the fundamental point” of his comments was that “among the population 65 and older, many can live socially distanced safely and with reasonable inconvenience for a few more months.”

“But far more among the essential workers don’t have that option, [especially] frontline workers,” he continued. “Therefore, vaccinating all healthy people 65+ before essential workers is likely to make racial and economic disparities worse.”

Within each population group, he said, it is critical to “use a measure such as a social vulnerability index, to make sure that more vulnerable people are offered a vaccine first.”


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