Okay, so I get it. Those over 65, the oldest 15 percent of the US population, account for 80 percent of corona deaths. To the under-65 crowd the covid risk is still considerable: a mortality rate of around 0.2%, potentially killing half a million of them before herd immunity is achieved. Still, the younger demographics face less risk from corona that the flu poses to their elders. I’m 68, and before covid I didn’t go out of my way to avoid catching the flu. Why shouldn’t the country reopen? Go ahead, youngsters: go back to work and school and play, ditch the masks and suck in each other’s breath and spit. I’m prepared to keep my distances until the vaccine rolls out or the herd gets immune, whichever comes first.
The shame, and the outrage, is that the lockdown will have gone to waste.
If the authorities had taken the epidemic seriously a couple of weeks sooner. If everyone had been more diligent during the lockdown. If businesses had followed the guidelines before reopening. Hundreds of thousands fewer people would have been infected; tens of thousands fewer would have died.
Regret and resentment can’t change the past. Why can’t they change the present and the future? Why, two months from now, will we be saying what-if about how the reopening has gone wrong, how we’re right back where we started in mid-March, before the lockdown, when the virus was running rampant through the populace?
Now that we’re here, don’t blame us, the old and the comorbid, for treading on the People’s freedoms and disrupting their livelihoods and destabilizing their mental health. We’re as much the victims of this public health fiasco as anyone else. Don’t gussy up the coming slaughter with bad Darwinism. Don’t invoke ROI or worker solidarity to justify the collateral damage. Don’t dismiss the pandemic as a temporary distraction from the important issues.
Call it what it is: a massive and tragic failure.
A month ago there was hope that the covid plateau would take a decidedly downward tilt, slowing the rate of new infections and deaths until the first wave was extinguished. It might have happened. It has happened elsewhere. France, a month ago averaging nearly a thousand deaths per day, has over the past ten days seen its daily covid death count drop to around 120. France has reason to hope that, in systematically and prudently reopening the country, new cases and deaths will continue to decline even as the economy recovers. Not here. In more than half the states the death tolls are plateaued or climbing. Nonetheless, the country is reopening; hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more will die.
For many, perhaps most, the benefits of going back to ordinary life outweigh the risks. But in exposing themselves to infection they too become vectors of contagion. We who are older, those of us who live with chronic health conditions, are expected to protect ourselves, to self-quarantine, as the virus sweeps through the population. Fair enough. What sorts of resources might help us maintain our self-quarantine for the next year or two as we try to survive the coming onslaught? ICU beds, adequately equipped and staffed by medical professionals whose ranks aren’t decimated by infection? Widespread testing and contact tracing? Yes, certainly, but also the more quotidian issues: home delivery of goods and services, psychosocial support, safe strategies for living together with family and friends while living apart.
Not only are the elderly most vulnerable bodily; they’re also most vulnerable economically. During recovery from the 2007-2008 recession, those over 55 who lost their jobs took more than twice as long on average to find employment as did younger workers. In the corona recovery the hiring age bias will be far more pronounced, with employers committed to maximizing productivity while minimizing sick leave and health insurance premiums. Biden has caught flak from single-payer enthusiasts for expanding Medicare eligibility down only to age 60, but during the epidemic they’re the ones who most need access to low-cost healthcare. Facing the near-impossibility of finding new jobs for the foreseeable future, older workers should continue to qualify for enhanced unemployment benefits until they’re eligible to collect Social Security.
What are the odds? As the country picks up speed, attention will shift from illness and death to jobs and stocks and football. Sequestered, scapegoated by capital and labor alike, all but forgotten, the old and infirm won’t be heard as they’re nudged under the trolley.