February 29, 2024

Do we need to rethink nursing homes?

A revealing article in Harper’s Magazine raises agonising questions

An article in Harper’s Magazine on deaths in nursing homes during the Covid-19 pandemic is compulsory reading. About 40% of deaths in the United States have been in nursing homes. The figures are worse in other countries. According to journalist Andrew Cockburn, they may be as high as 75% in the UK and 64% in Norway.

But it is these paragraphs which should be considered in any discussion of the tragic pandemic:

the heavy death toll among the elderly might be traced to one main source: the neoliberal privatization craze that has swept the Western world over the past forty years.

However, an arid statistical table published last year by the World Health Organization suggests a more fundamental truth. It tabulates the number of nursing-home beds per hundred thousand people in each European country. Sweden scores very high—1,276 per hundred thousand. Britain is also high, at 847. The same computation puts the United States at 515. Greece, on the other hand, whose citizens tend not to put their elderly relatives in homes and still regard their care as a family responsibility, scores a mere 15.

The disparities in casualty rates are equally striking. In terms of deaths per hundred thousand, Sweden’s rate is 53; the United Kingdom comes in at 66; and the United States has 39. Greece, meanwhile, despite having the largest proportion of elderly people in Europe, has so far escaped with a mere 2 deaths per hundred thousand. One might almost conclude that the death toll that has so traumatized and destabilized much of Western society in 2020 was not wrought principally by the coronavirus, but by nursing homes.

Ideally, we might emulate Greek family relationships and arrangements (or move to Greece to grow old) and abandon the institutional-care approach in favor of a model where the bottom line is not the driving priority. 

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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