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Perspective | Magazine

What if the lockdown is worse than the disease?

Past disruptions have meant vicious long-term consequences for schoolchildren and the unemployed.

staff and wire photos

"You’re putting profits before people!” That’s the cry of outrage we hear from those who push back against efforts to reopen the economy, restart schools, and get people back to work.

But this isn’t about money and greed. It’s about people. Yes, the lockdown has saved lives. But in so doing it’s damaged and may eventually take many others. Perhaps the right way to think about our response to the pandemic is that we chose the lives of some people over others, and in so doing, we very well may have calculated wrong.

The harm to children is obvious. Schools across the United States shut in mid-March and never reopened. Our substitute was online education. As I expect just about every parent and guardian now agrees, it’s an ineffective alternative. Indeed, for the youngest, online learning is essentially impossible; they simply don’t have the intellectual tools to be able to engage with teachers through a computer. (Conflict alert: I work for an early-education nonprofit.)

The result has been a missed semester. The damage from skipping a third of a year’s education is likely impossible to fix, especially for those in elementary grades or preschool. Learning for young children is different from adults — the brains of the young are uniquely plastic, absorbing new ideas in succession. But the research is clear that when young children miss even brief windows of learning, it can’t be made up. As the years wear on, we will see a generation of children permanently stunted in their intellectual growth. The Brookings Institution estimates that the school closures so far will cost the affected children $2.5 trillion in lost earnings over their lifetimes. Brooking compares the lost semester of 2020 to gaps in schooling during World War II, saying that those gaps “still had negative impact on former students’ lives some 40 years later.”

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Moreover, the fallout from missed schooling will land hardest on those from the most difficult circumstances. Wealthier parents have more resources to try to make up some of their children’s loss during the shutdown. Poorer parents are far less able to do so, meaning that one other result from the “pause” (the euphemism used by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo) will be widening inequality, largely along economic and racial lines.

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It’s not only intellectual growth and equity that will be lost. Schooling — and the independence from home that it brings — is critical for social and emotional growth. Teenagers and college students are missing activities such as dances, sports, and dating. These are not trivial extras; they are core to a child transitioning to adulthood. So too are friendships and romances without parents’ watchful eyes. Instead, teens and college students are stuck at home, subject to the authority of mom and dad, babied once again. This pause, too, will echo through their lives.

Also feeling pain are the millions of unemployed. The unemployed are not, generally, telecommuting white-collar workers. Rather, they are those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder — blue-collar and service workers — as well as recent graduates new to the workforce and unable to secure jobs. The pain they feel is not only financial, but emotional.

Many of them will face permanent damage from our deliberate economic self-immolation. Some of that damage will be to their careers. Jobs — just like learning — tend to build on one another. The waiter becomes the manager becomes the restaurant owner. The lockdown has interrupted that progression; The Economist predicts the unemployed will face “a lost decade.”

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Some of that damage will manifest itself in folks’ physical and mental health. Numerous studies find that unemployment leads to higher mortality (from suicide, stress, and other causes). One, from 2003, found that death rates for the unemployed rose from 5.36 percent to 7.83 percent in the 10 to 17 years following their initial job loss. If applied to the 33 million Americans who had lost their jobs through April due to the lockdown, that means an extra 815,000 deaths — far more than will likely be killed by COVID-19.

I suspect that, long after the pandemic is over, social scientists and economists will be analyzing the multiple unintended consequences of our Draconian response to it. The young and the unemployed will be first on their lists, but there will be others, too: Entrepreneurs whose dreams have been dashed, those not suffering from coronavirus who are afraid to go to a doctor or hospital, the isolated and alone falling into depression and addiction, those trapped in abusive households.

People speak of a second or third wave of infection from the virus — and the instinct from politicians and public health authorities will be to have yet another round of lockdowns. But the point of flattening the curve, as population health expert Drew Harris has said, wasn’t to reduce the number of total cases (no matter what the curve, we’ll have the same “number of new cases over time,” he says). Rather, it was to make sure health care systems weren’t overwhelmed.

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We’ve done that. And having done that, this fall schools need to reopen, jobs need to return, and we need to move toward some semblance of an open society. The disease will continue to ravage us, and the losses will be visceral and terrifying. But delaying our return to normalcy will make the costs even worse.

Tom Keane is a writer based in Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.