We’re Really Not All in the Same Boat

The genesis of my blog is an essay I wrote in the first week of lockdown in the UK. It was at that time that things started to get crazy, especially on social media, and people started posting things with little regard for the facts, and with tunnel vision.  It was around that time that memes started circulating about “sacrificing Grandma for the stock market.” These seemed to misunderstand many issues at the same time. First, there definitely are serious problems with procedures in releasing people to care homes, in both the US and the UK. Hospitals, worried about being overwhelmed, may have released people too early. Then they went back to vulnerable populations, without proper PPE or separation measures in place (even though, in the US at least, there were supposed to be quarantine plans in place at nursing homes). So far, over 26,000 people have died in nursing homes in the US (NY Times 05.09.20), or about 30% of the total deaths due to COVID-19. In the UK, the total is about 10,000 (ITV 05.19.20),  also roughly a third of total COVID-19 related deaths. In the UK, this total also includes 131 care workers, mostly younger and mostly presumed healthy. The deaths have been caused by bad plans (or no plans) and bureaucracy, and the fact that this virus, more than others, has attacked the old and the already infirm almost exclusively. But it’s equally true that the lockdown would not and did not improve these numbers. COVID-19 was brought into the care homes most likely by people carrying it from hospitals, so testing and not readmitting people to care homes (if tests had been available) would probably have had the most significant impact on those numbers, with or without a lockdown in the general population.

As high as the care home numbers are, they are still not a majority of the older people who are dying, but older people are definitely the majority of the total. Ninety-eight percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the UK were of people age 50 or above (ONS COVID-19 deaths by age), even though people over 50 make up only about 38% of the total population (ONS UK population by age). This means that if you are a healthy person below the age of 50, you are very unlikely to die of COVID-19. And as you go up the age chart, the numbers show an even greater disparity. Sixty percent of COVID deaths occur in people 80 years old and above, who make up only 6% of the population. There are exceptions, of course: younger people who have worked with COVID patients, and without appropriate PPE, for a long period of time seem to be disproportionately infected. The theory is that the high viral load of the intimate contact they have leads to more serious disease. But overall, all the memes suggesting that COVID-19 affects the young and the old equally are misleading.

People who go out partying in Fort Lauderdale or sunning in Santa Monica are not likely to die, or even get really seriously ill. What we have instead is less than 25% of the population relying on the other 75% to keep them healthy. This would be fine, and admirable in the younger people who sacrifice for their elders except for the fact that a lot of those elders are slagging off the younger people for being concerned about what the lockdown will mean for their future, or resistant to the lockdown. Younger people are also more likely to be gig workers who don’t get the 80% furlough wages the UK government has given to their full-time work staff—or the unemployment pay given to American workers. They are the ones more likely to have their educations interrupted, their employment offers rescinded, and their opportunities vanish. They are also the people who are delivering your groceries so you don’t have to go out and processing your Amazon orders so you have something to do while you are staying in.

I started wondering why people in my generation, even before COVID-19, have been so judgmental about the generations that follow, and so expectant that our wishes will be met first. And why now are we so insistent that any breaking from the path we have decided on (because we are generally the ones in power) is just an example of how selfish younger people are? I’ve come up with some theories, which you may or may not buy.

First, there’s the general tendency of older people to think they did it better/had it harder than the younger people that follow. But that’s probably the smaller part of the problem, because a bigger problem is that, up to now, we have not thought we were old, or even older. Our generation, particularly the younger wave of baby boomers, and specifically the white-collar, middle-to-upper-class members of our generation, have been incredibly lucky. If you came of age after 1973, you didn’t have to worry about a draft. You may have graduated from high school or college into a recession, but the costs of living at the lower end were far less, proportionally, than they are for today’s graduates. Real estate was reasonably priced, even if we thought the prices were high. Health care and advances in medicine have made us feel, to a certain extent, invincible. Even the diseases largely caused by lifestyle choices can be controlled. I know people in London who time their insulin to their drinking instead of lessening their drinking once they are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Statin drugs lower our cholesterol and angioplasty is a commonplace and relatively low-risk procedure when the statins don’t work. We are told that 60 is the new 40, and, by God, we believe it. Most of us are far more active than our parents were at our age. I know someone with whom I went to high school on Facebook who lives in a retirement community and talks about “us old-timers,” and I think, “Speak for yourself!” Basically, we’ve controlled everything and risen to the challenges. Now, we are faced with a disease that hits mostly people our age or above, and we’re panicked. We can’t suddenly control it, so we’re trying to control everyone’s behavior. And we don’t want to be in the group that’s forced to self-isolate if the economy opens up, because we do not think of ourselves as having hit the age where that age should limit our activity. At the same time, our kids are grown and we’re the people who have more income and more leisure time. If baby boomers stop taking cruises, they will be empty. We paid our dues and we were supposed to be reaping the rewards now. My husband and I moved back to his native Britain four years ago partly because we liked the ease with which you can travel here. We’ve now cancelled four trips, so far, because of COVID-19.

The problem is that, since we are the people with the loudest voices and generally the people running things (although now the leaders in the UK are a bit younger than I), the way we want things done is the way they get done. To a certain extent, we are rejecting the idea that we are in a group that might have to be more careful. Hey, we run marathons! We’re young and healthy! (And, by the way, that’s probably still true for most of us, since the numbers include the marathon runners and the couch potatoes.) But what we have done is try to panic the whole population, demanding that everyone lock down (except the people who are making our locked-down lives easier), and trying to scare them into submission. But after a while, the scare tactics don’t work. We’d probably have been better served to stick to, “We need to do this so that your parents are safe,” because no matter how many times we try to assert that it’s not a disease of age, it is mostly a disease of age. All of this might seem like water under the bridge now, since most countries decided to lock everyone down, but it has serious implications for how we open up. Already in the UK, there’s talk that travel insurance may not be available to older people anymore. And we are part of the older people, no matter how much we feel like we’re not. Moreover, by burying the real numbers under the stream of stories about individuals who are outside the norm (the 25-year-old who died, the 32-year-old who spent a week on a ventilator and a month in hospital), we are scaring some people whose agreement is needed to get the country up and running. The best example of this right now is parents. I know when my son was small, statistics did not stop me from worrying. And parents are naturally worried about their children. We have spent two months telling everyone that this is an equal-opportunity illness, and now we want them to understand that their children are very unlikely to be in danger if they send them back to school. Even though that’s true, it’s a hard sell.

Since it’s unlikely that a miracle cure will come along before it becomes absolutely necessary for countries to allow some businesses to open up, we have to start accepting that some of us might not be able to be an immediate part of that opening up.

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