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Call your mom: The generational politics of Covid-19

We may be facing a fast-moving health crisis among older generations that mostly doesn’t directly impact the health of younger ones, a kind of age-based trolley problem.

Lesley Becker/Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Adobe

There’s a lot we don’t know about Covid-19, but one dynamic appears clear: The health danger is highest for older people and those with preexisting health conditions, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. In South Korea, where there is a lot of testing and a strong public health system, not a single person under 30 has died from the disease. Only two people under 50 have died out of 3,263 South Korean cases reported on March 8. On the Diamond Princess cruise ship, out of 705 coronavirus cases, there have been 8 fatalities — and none of these were under 70.

For healthy Gen-X-ers and millennials, this is probably a relief — doubly so if they have children. Indeed, the experience of younger populations may largely be that the virus is no big deal.


But there are 72 million Americans over 60 years old in the United States. If only a fraction of them get the virus and the mortality rate still turns out to be lower than the 1-5 percent that South Korea is seeing among this age group, we’re still looking at hundreds of thousands of mortalities, not to mention a large multiple of that number who will need extended intensive care. That’s why hospitals are preparing for the possibility that coronavirus could kill the number of Americans who die each year of diabetes, flu, Alzheimer’s, and strokes . . . combined.

This is why the Centers for Disease Control is now recommending that people over 60 stay in their homes.

In other words, we may be facing an extraordinary, fast-moving health crisis among older generations that mostly doesn’t directly impact the health of younger ones.

If it plays out this way, the generational politics that are already defining our political era will come into more stark relief. Governmental entities and institutions could face difficult choices between saving the lives of older people on a large scale and a series of disruptive, difficult impacts on younger families and children — especially those who are already economically stressed.


To make matters more complicated, news sources and political affiliations vary by age. The average Fox viewer, for example, is 68. Since the right-wing media and President Trump have been playing down the public health threat, the age groups most likely to be affected are the least prepared to take the crisis seriously. Democrats are twice as likely to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously as Republicans, according to recent Reuters polling. “I haven’t changed a single thing,” a Republican respondent told Reuters journalists.

So we are divided, both facing and seeing different threats, and in the meantime need to make some very hard decisions in a very short amount of time.

Take, for example, the question of closing public schools, as governments have already done in Japan, Italy, and other countries, affecting over 300 million children around the world. It’s still unclear what role children play in spreading the disease. And educators, rightly, want to avoid shutting down a schooling system that also acts as a critical social safety net for low-income families.

But let’s say it becomes clearer that schools do accelerate the spread of the disease. If that’s the case, closing them sooner makes a far greater impact than doing it later. A 2007 study of cities’ interventions around the 1918-1919 flu found that these measures were less effective each day a city waited. Do we disrupt the lives of millions of young people — literally including their access to healthy food — or do we accelerate the spread of a disease among the old?


Part of the answer must be that we reinvest in elements of the social safety net that have eroded. Paid sick and family leave, cash stimulus to help economically hard-hit families, and other emergency measures can help mitigate the pain that younger families will feel.

But to navigate this moment well, we will also need to renew intergenerational relationships — without spreading the virus from the largely safe generation to the quite-at-risk generation — and channel new modes of intergenerational empathy. And if older folks are being drawn in by misinformation coming from the White House and Fox News, they’ll need to listen to their kids and grandkids when they’re trying to share information and help them stay safe.

In short: Call your mom. We’re all in this together.

Eli Pariser is the author of “The Filter Bubble” and co-director of the Civic Signals Project. Follow him on Twitter @elipariser.

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