The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world brings more than illness, death and economic chaos; it also brings existential and ethical dilemmas about how to provide care for the elderly, who are most at risk of both contracting the virus and dying from the virus. 

In a new research brief released today by the United States Studies Centre, Non-Resident Expert Dr Lesley Russell examines the practical and ethical considerations - unprecedented in recent history - that these facts will bring to bear as the number of cases in Australia and the United States continue to rise.

"Increasingly, doctors in some hard-hit cities are unable to care for everyone who seeks treatment amid a critical shortage of needed equipment such as ventilators. In such crisis situations, hospitals and doctors find themselves in the terrible position of having to decide who does and does not get access to intensive care facilities," Dr Russell says. 

"These 'crisis standards of care' prioritise the survival of the group over the survival of the individual patient during disasters."

Key points

  • COVID-19 is having the most severe impact among the elderly in America. Adults aged 65 and over account for 31 per cent of all cases, 45 per cent of hospitalisations, 53 per cent of ICU admissions, and 80 per cent of all deaths.
  • A variety of factors make nursing homes especially at risk: sick, older residents, poor staffing with minimal clinical training, and lax infection prevention. Residents live in close proximity, eating in communal spaces and often sharing rooms.
  • Doctors in some of the world's wealthiest nations will be forced to ration care.

View brief

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