The Corner

Politics & Policy

Experts in What, Exactly?

Frances Gogh receives the first of two Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine injections at Guy’s Hospital in London, England, December 8, 2020. (Victoria Jones/Pool via Reuters)

You probably saw some draft language from the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which suggested prioritizing essential workers over the elderly in vaccine distribution, in part because elderly people who are most at risk of dying are more likely to be white and therefore privileged.

The New York Times explored the issue of giving vaccine priority to the elderly or essential workers — a category far larger than “front line workers.” (Essential workers includes media apparently.) They quote an “expert in ethics and health policy” from UPenn:

 Harald Schmidt, an expert in ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, said that it is reasonable to put essential workers ahead of older adults, given their risks, and that they are disproportionately minorities. “Older populations are whiter, ” Dr. Schmidt said. “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.”

Now, notably, because the elderly are so much more likely to die of coronavirus, a policy of prioritizing essential workers actually doesn’t save more black lives, it means more elderly black people will die.  Author Wesley Yang understood the logic perfectly: “kill more black people in absolute terms so as to kill more white people in relative terms.”

Twitter user Spotted Toad alerts us that according to a report in the Washington Post, Joe Biden’s advisers are pretty happy about the kind of thinking going on at the CDC:

President-elect Joe Biden’s covid-19 advisory board supports the phases set forth by the advisory group, said one of its co-chairs, Marcella Nunez-Smith,  an associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine.  She praised the panel’s experts for “taking political interference out of the process” and said she was “quite excited by their grounding in inequity,” referring to the importance given to factors such as housing and minority status in decisions about prioritization.

Now it seems like after the pushback, the recommendations are finally putting the elderly where they belong: at the front of the line for the vaccine they want.

What exactly is the expertise of the people in public health? And by “taking political interference out of the process,” I take it Marcella Nunez-Smith means taking political decisions away from the public and their representatives.


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