On Monday night I had supper with my mother and my mother-in-law, both of whom are in their 70s and have "underlying health conditions".
It wasn't a special occasion: just a chicken pie and a catch-up at the kitchen table. But as we said goodbye, with joshing elbow bumps instead of hugs, I felt the same anxious foreboding that I imagine parents feel when they wave their teenagers off on gap year adventures in dangerous places. Have they got everything they need? Will they remember to wash their hands? How long will it be before I see them again?
• Coronavirus: Mysteriously sparing kids and killing the elderly - understanding why may defeat the virus
• Premium - Coronavirus: Retirement village sector chiefs form task force to protect elderly
• Coronavirus: Rest homes, retirement villages plead for national aged care response plan
• Rotorua letters: Worries over coronavirus scams
Some people seem to find it reassuring that Covid-19 "only" kills old people. I find it terrifying. It's one thing – and quite bad enough – to lose your elderly relatives in the normal way, picked off one by one as ageing takes its course. This is the grief that everyone has to endure, although its ordinariness doesn't make it any less of an ordeal.
But what if we lose them all at once? That wouldn't just be a tragedy for millions of bereaved individuals; it would be a demographic disaster.
The fact we live in an ageing society is almost always presented as a problem. Old people get ill and clog up the NHS. They cost a fortune in pensions and social care. They hog all the nice family houses, which they bought for six shillings just after the war.
Since the Brexit referendum, a further charge has been added to the rap sheet: their politics are all wrong. Why must they be so embarrassingly patriotic, so – shudder – conservative? In the December general election, 60 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds voted for Jeremy Corbyn. If they hadn't been thwarted by the old folks, we'd be living in a Communist paradise by now.
But being unlike the young is, to my mind, one of the chief virtues of the old. They don't commit crimes or drop litter or bang on about climate change while ordering up another Deliveroo. They are much more environmentally friendly than the young: flying less, consuming less, rinsing and reusing everything, down to the last wisp of clingfilm.
Above all, they are so wonderfully non-judgmental. They couldn't care less who you sleep with, which pronouns you use, what you earn, where you send your children to school or who you vote for. The last of the true liberals, fired in the social revolution of the '60s, they remain unshockable even in this era of easy outrage. They serve as a vital counterweight to the demented puritans of Generation Z.
To take one small example: last week, the US publisher Hachette dropped its plans to publish Woody Allen's memoirs, after staff walked out in protest. What kind of person, you might wonder – what kind of publisher – believes only virtuous people should make it into print? How could anyone who claims to care about books think it righteous to silence a writer?
My father was a publisher, at a time when the profession was still fighting against censorship, not for it. On the day of the Hachette walk-out, I found myself peering closely at a photograph of the strikers, trying to understand what had happened to my father's tribe. The "publishers" were milling around on the street outside their building, heads down, staring at their Twitter feeds. There wasn't a grey hair among them.