Who will be culled from the herd?

— By Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health &ampField notes

A triage station in Suippes, France during World War I.

For Pete Hamill

I predict that the “word of the year” for 2021 will be “triage,” pronounced: tree·aazh. And that’s no small claim considering that the word for 2020 hasn’t come out yet — and here I am betting on 2021.

As you might know, every year the major dictionary companies pick a “word of the year” because they can’t find a word in their book to say what they need to say — so they invent a word, add it to their dictionary, and share it with others.

It’s an extraordinary event really because a word is being born before our eyes; on a global scale, the human race is given greater competency to speak about what it needs to stay alive — if only by a word.

For 2019, the Oxford Dictionaries chose as their word of the year “climate emergency.” They said it referred to a “situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.”

They could not find the sentiment in their book so they created “climate emergency” to allow the human tongue to speak with greater confidence about, again, what it needs to stay alive.

For 2019, Merriam-Webster chose “they.” You might say, hey, “they” is already in the dictionary! But Merriam-Webster said no, the company was now using it as a singular to refer to a person whose gender identity is “nonbinary.”

A deeply profound statement. A “he” can now be a they and a they can be a “she.” And a “they” can be any other expression of gendered-being.

And yet all the grammar books, all the lessons we learned growing up about “number” say you can’t refer to more than one person as a he (or a she). You have to say they. And you can’t refer to one person as they; they are more than one — a rule that religions disregard.

Through their choice, Merriam-Webster changed the way we speak about identity. They saw using “they” instead of “he” as a matter of justice for it takes into account the needs of people whose identity stood in a “no-man’s” land.

Those are two instances of the word of the year for 2019 by two great dictionary companies; now we await 2020.

But I suggest, as we do, that we pay attention to the word I chose for 2021: triage — and, yes, it is in the dictionary.

By 2021, “triage” will be seated deeply in the conscious of every American — and every other soul affected by the coronavirus — because it means a group or committee will be making decisions about who will live and who will die by culling the herd.

That is, part of the population will be denied the resources it needs to stay alive — capitalist ideology on steroids — because those resources just aren’t there.

Webster’s Third International says triage is: 1 Brit a: the process of grading marketable produce; b: the lowest grade of coffee berries consisting of broken material 2: the sorting and first-aid treatment of battle casualties in collecting stations at the front before their evacuation in hospitals to the rear.

The last is what most people are familiar with. Fans of the TV series M*A*S*H know all about it. In the show’s 122nd episode, “Margaret’s Marriage,” Chief Nurse Major Margaret Houlihan performs pre-op triage in a wedding dress!

And with “triage” we find ourselves once again in the field of economics because we’re talking about the value of some thing or some one as opposed to the value of some other thing or some other one. It’s “Antiques Roadshow” with people being appraised.

Triage says there’s only so much to go around and too many in need, so some will be sent to the desert to let the birds of the air have their say.

It’s very much related to the concept of “the value of a statistical life” (VSL), which is a measure of whose life is valuable — calculated by how much society is willing to spend to keep a person (or group of persons) alive. Triage says some are not worth the price; they cost too much.

You can see how all this relates to the distribution of the vaccine we have been promised to inoculate ourselves against COVID-19. It’s no small thing.

What if the vaccine is “strong enough” so a person can go to the mall any time he wants, can wade into the thickest crowds at the shore, can shop day or night without the slightest fear of catching anything — no mask! You want to be first in line?

If you read, or listen to, or watch, any of the major news sources in the country (world) today, there is considerable discussion about how fair the upcoming distribution system will be. The word transparency keeps cropping up; nobody wants to be cheated unfairly.

What’s troubling is that the matter is already before us. On July 25, Nicole Chavez and Kay Jones reported for CNN in an article “A Texas hospital overwhelmed by the coronavirus may send some patients home to die.”

“May send some patients home to die” means triage, the desert, the birds of the air having their say.

The medical staff at Starr County Memorial Hospital in Rio Grande City — located on the United State-Mexico border — said they couldn’t take it anymore, they were out of gas, nothing was left in the cupboard, they were sending people home, to die, in some cases alone.

In a Facebook post, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said with wistful sadness, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die by their loved ones. This is what we did not want our community to experience.”

Later she said, “Our backs are against the wall. We are literally in a life and death situation.”

Committees were being set up at Starr County Memorial Hospital to decide who should go home. Starr County? I keep thinking of Star Chamber.

Who then should get the vaccine first? Doctors, nurses, and all their assistants, who keep bodies lined-up in hospital hallways, alive? There seems to be universal agreement they should get the shots first.

What about “vulnerable populations?” Are they next? Recent epidemiological data say the poor, African Americans, and Latinos are the worst hit by COVID-19. Should not they, our poor, our black, and our Brown citizens be next in line?

What about the agèd? Those 75 and over the virus blows through like a locomotive. Should not they be next? But some will say: Those old fogies had their day; let’s focus on younger souls to give them a shot at life.

These are the kinds of variables that comprise America’s (the world’s) value of a statistical life index today and will determine who will be culled from the herd.

And if Miss Corona rages even more so this coming fall and winter — as is universally agreed she will — there will not be enough beds to go around. Who should be the first to get — as they used to say in vaudeville — the hook?

Footnote: Hospice teams will be stretched so thin, they too will send folks to the desert to die, some alone and some spiraling in wonderment as the birds of the air circle above. I can hear them now: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” 

And, if it does, they’re saying, why ain’t it waving for me?