One month into the “Shelter in Place” life that affects so many around the world, we all see and feel its effects, both in terms of sickness and economic devastation. As all nations work to “flatten the curve,” questions abound about when and how we reopen both our economies and our societies.
Infectious disease experts warn against reopening too quickly. They remind us that by doing so we might recreate the conditions that caused the virus to spread in the first place. However, there are other demons to consider.
These demons may not manifest themselves immediately, but don’t doubt their effects. Perhaps most importantly, we must appreciate their disproportionate impacts. While COVID-19 takes an enormous medical toll on people over 60 or with pre-existing medical conditions, the effort made to fight it falls most heavily on the young. That impact likely will last for decades. If we’re not careful, the disparity will result in a “Generation Gap” not seen since the 1960s.
The first demon is the medical demon. “Stay at Home” edicts mean more social isolation to those who live alone or otherwise feel apart. Calls to suicide prevention hotlines have skyrocketed around the world. Those same edicts mean that adults in relationships with an abusive spouse or children living with an abusive parent remain imprisoned in that home. For many — especially the children — getting out of the house and going to school is a necessary break from abusive home life. Indeed, for many children it is the schoolteachers and counselors who spot the abuse in the first place. That also is gone so long as all schools are closed.
The second demon is the economic demon. The predictions are dire. Goldman Sachs estimates that economic activity in the United States for the second quarter will contract by at least a quarter. Israel’s economy is operating at 15% of its capacity. Italy’s economy is forecast to contract by 11%.
If we devastate our economies, we will pass on to our children societies much poorer than we inherited. Already we see the current impact in the long lines at food banks around the world. This increased poverty will impact not only the future prospects and the emotional well being of the young, it also will directly affect their healthcare. Wealthy societies can spend more on healthcare than poor societies.
In addition, the massive amounts of governmental stimulus being spent now around the world to prop up teetering economies overwhelmingly come in the form of debt. Literally trillions of dollars, pounds, shekels and pesos are being borrowed now that will have to be repaid in the future. Again, it is the young who will pay the piper.
The third demon is the frustration and indeed bitterness that we risk among our young the longer this goes on. While the coronavirus can kill them, the overwhelming majority of victims either are over 60 or have pre-existing conditions. Some statistics show that more people over age 90 than under age 30 have died from COVID-19.
From my entirely unscientific interactions, many young people believe they are sacrificing for others. They are willing — and often even proud — to do this, but the longer the shutdown goes on, the less willing they will be. With the summer approaching, the possibility that people will remain glued to their homes shrinks to almost nothing. This is true especially in poorer communities without air conditioning.
In the United States, experts warn that by prematurely opening our society we could cause 200,000 deaths. But no matter how heartless it sounds the question must be asked. Each year we lose over 500,000 people to heart disease and cancer each. I’m sure the relative numbers around the world are similar. For any nation, is it appropriate to keep an entire society in limbo to guard against that potential death toll? By continuing to keep our respective countries on pause, keeping our people in isolation and watching our economies shrink we make a generational choice. The young understand this. To an extent never before seen, their futures are being put at risk in order to protect the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions.
The reopening of each society will not come all at once, but in a series of steps. Each step likely increases the prospect of new COVID-19 cases occurring. When they do, critics will blast any government for opening too soon. But there are other considerations that must be taken into account. We owe it to our young to take their futures into consideration as we make these decisions, and to constantly reevaluate based on all the impacts as we move forward.