JOHN HUMPHRYS: Coronavirus presents very difficult waters

JOHN HUMPHRYS: I know I’m among the vulnerable group for coronavirus, but just don’t believe all lives are equal

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We are all preparing for CV-Day in our own ways. That’s the day when the virus reaches its peak and the phoney war is over. 

The last real phoney war began when we declared war on Germany and it ended when the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in 1940. 

It took another five years to win the war — but at least the enemy was visible. We knew what had to be done and we did it. 

For a start, how dare we dump nine million individual human beings into a box labelled ‘the elderly’ with all that implies. It is both inane and offensive. It’s not the same as referring to ‘teenagers’ collectively. A woman is pictured above wearing a face mask [File photo]

Or, rather, our parents and grandparents did it. This time we don’t have field marshals in underground war rooms poring over maps and troop movements. 

It’s you and me in our kitchens wondering whether it’s safe to invite the neighbours in for a cuppa.

Or maybe whether that niggling little cough you heard coming from over the garden wall means it’s time to trigger the evacuation plans and escape to the country. 

Unless you’re already in the country, of course. I’ve already completed my own preparations. They consist of a notice in a transparent plastic envelope which will be nailed to my front gate at roughly six o’clock every morning. 

The notice will be addressed to ‘Whomsoever Is Charged With ­Enforcing the Mandatory SelfIsolation Order’. 

It will say: ‘The owner of this property is within the age bracket that requires his compulsory self-isolation. He is not at home and therefore not self-isolating in the accepted sense of the phrase. If you wish to enforce the regulation, you will find him running around the park. He is happy to obey the order. But you’ll have to catch him first!’ I hear you tut-tutting. 

These are very difficult waters but, of course, the older we get the more we become reconciled to our own mortality [File photo]

This is no time for flippancy, you say. Well, maybe not. But tell me what’s wrong with my plan — apart from the fact that it’s pretty limited in its ambition. 

Am I harming anyone by running round a deserted park? Patently not. Is it good for me? Obviously. I’ve been doing a daily run for 40-odd years and, apart from a few colds, I’ve never had a day’s illness. At the very least it has done me no harm. 

Yes, I realise that I’m tempting providence, and by the time you read these words I may be lying on my sick bed having been struck down by the virus which is planning to make its malign presence felt even as I type. 

It may even turn out to be my death bed. Too morbid for your taste? I’m sorry if I sound a bit belligerent but, like many others of my generation, I’ve had a bellyful of the ways in which society tends to caricature and often patronise the elderly. 

For a start, how dare we dump nine million individual human beings into a box labelled ‘the elderly’ with all that implies. It is both inane and offensive. It’s not the same as referring to ‘teenagers’ collectively. 

Their age group spans six years. The so called ‘elderly’ span 40 years or even a bit longer. It’s an attitude that leads to road safety planners portraying older people as bent-over, doddery creatures leaning heavily on a stick. 

I see no protests on university campuses about that particular affront to the dignity of a very large section of society who are perfectly capable of crossing a road — with or without a stick. I wonder why. 

One of the many bad things about coronavirus is that it has seriously set back the cause of those noble freedom fighters in the OPLF (Older People’s Liberation Front) just when there were signs of progress. 

Confession time: the OPLF does not exist outside my imagination, because in so many respects older people have been doing very well without it. One measure is the survival rate. 

In 2018, for the first time in history, persons aged 65 or above outnumbered children under five years of age globally. You might ask who would want to live for ever when, as everyone knows, horrible diseases await us — the most horrible of which, in my view, is dementia. 

Am I harming anyone by running round a deserted park? Patently not. Is it good for me? Obviously. I’ve been doing a daily run for 40-odd years and, apart from a few colds, I’ve never had a day’s illness [File photo]

Surveys show that most people think if we live long enough we will eventually get dementia or Alzheimer’s. Well, they are wrong. Only one in six people over 80 have dementia and many never get it. 

And in several countries — including our own — the risk of getting it is falling. It’s a fifth lower than it was 20 years ago. 

Those encouraging facts and many, many more are contained in a brilliant book written by Camilla Cavendish, who was director of policy for David Cameron when he was Prime Minister and is now a member of the House of Lords. 

It’s called Extra Time, and she makes the point that it’s not old age that’s getting longer. It’s middle age. In England, the proportion of over-65s with any kind of impairment has been falling since the end of the last century. 

I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania when I was in my mid-60s and vividly remember a young Scandinavian soldier just ahead of me on the final ascent. He was 6ft-plus of lean muscle and enviable self-confidence — until he suddenly keeled over.

As he was loaded on to a stretcher to be taken back to base camp, my guide told me older climbers like me were often better able to cope with the thin air at around 20,000ft than super-fit youngsters. 

I talked about getting old this week to Dame Judi Dench, our greatest living actor, for an interview on Classic FM. She’s 85 and she has yet another new film coming out: Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

She worries about only one thing: her next job. But now ‘the elderly’ must stay indoors in isolation — and perhaps for a very long time to come. There is, of course, a sound biological reason for it. 

Our cells age and the older we get the more difficulties they face in dividing and renewing themselves. And that means it’s more difficult to fight viral infections. But not impossible. 

And it remains the case that the great majority of those who have died were already ill. Some very seriously ill. It is a new experience for me to be the object of concern. 

It does not sit well with my old status at the BBC of Rottweiler in ­Residence. And I have mixed feelings over the sacrifices being made for my generation and above. 

Many young people will suffer if the economy is destroyed. But it’s not that I view the risk of death with equanimity. Quite the opposite. 

Surveys show that most people think if we live long enough we will eventually get dementia or Alzheimer’s. Well, they are wrong. Only one in six people over 80 have dementia and many never get it [File photo]

I’m having a wonderful life for all sorts of reasons: wonderful children and grandchildren; a wonderful partner; great friends. And even a new career. But there are benign aspects of the virus that help outweigh some of its terrors: a tiny number of children and young people have been affected by it. 

And let’s not have any of that nonsense about all lives being equal in the sight of God or whatever. They’re not. 

Even our saintly NHS relies on what are euphemistically called ‘quality-adjusted’ life years based on the length and quality of life to help medics decide who gets expensive treatment. 

All of this makes me more philosophical about my fate. These are very difficult waters but, of course, the older we get the more we become reconciled to our own mortality.

When I make my decision to go for my run, I am aware of what T.S. Eliot described in his poem Whispers Of Immortality as the ‘skull beneath the skin’. 

This week, the Government has forced us to confront our age. I have done so in flesh but also in spirit.

The public may have been exhorted by our leaders to think of the over 70s, but I am more concerned for the future generations. 

I reckon the OPLF would have coped with this crisis. Perhaps it’s time to resuscitate it.

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