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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Don’t Let the Coronovirus Create Generational Warfare; Act Rationally

Panic can put us on edge, but it’s crucial we remain calm and level-headed.

Image credit: Pexels

Earlier this week I went to the supermarket, instead of my wife who was leading the charge at home with our three small children. I don’t normally get to go, but we have a new rotation at the hospital for surgeons. I had the prescribed and detailed list in hand. My wife is a stellar cook, and I had to get the ingredients for the week. It’s a pretty standard task, but these aren’t standard times. I was wearing regular clothes (not scrubs). I walked in the supermarket and was handed a shopping cart. I didn’t see the sign for the brand new senior hours that literally started that morning, from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m.

Two minutes into my trip:

70-year-old female: “Are you a senior?”

Me: “I’m sorry, what?”

70F: “I said, are you a senior?”

Me: “I don’t understand, but no I’m not.”

70F: “Then, why are you here!?!?!?” (It was loud.)

Me: “Sorry, I don’t really understand.”

70F: “This time is for seniors only!”

Me: “Oh my, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I’ll…”

70F: “There was a sign out front!!!”

Me: “I’m sorry, I really didn’t see it. I’m leaving right now.”

70F: “Yeah, leave!”

There is no other side to this story. I shouldn’t have been there. I just didn’t know it. And she was charged about it.

This is how tense we are as a society.

That’s someone’s grandmother. She’s probably a very nice lady. But, the mere facts of my presence and my age posed a threat to her. Here is a sloppy, self-centered “millennial” who is going to get me killed by not taking this virus seriously.

We have shifted from “the virus is going to get someone sick” to “this person, due to their specific age cohort, is going to get me sick.” The fear is real; the elderly population lives in isolation worrying about dying alone.

The challenge is that shutting down the economy kills people too. It’s just harder to find the direct link. And it will impact the younger generation.

It is the younger generation who are giving up more of the economy to save those more likely to have serious complications from the virus. It’s the younger generation who is out of school. It’s the younger generation who is trying to balance homeschooling with virtual careers. It’s the younger generation that is seeing opportunity disappear. It is the younger generation that generally has less financial resiliency. It is the younger generations that will be dealing with the unintended consequences of a two trillion dollar stimulus. It’s the younger generation who hopes that inflation will stay low.

And in my unique case, I’m the younger generation doctor who is changing his scrubs in the car every day, running into the house in his underwear, and jumping right into the shower to avoid infecting his family.

Eventual animosity will flow from the young to the old. The pendulum will swing away from full public health protection back to developing economic abundance. The median age in patients dying from coronavirus in Italy is 81. The average life expectancy in the United States is 79. Will the younger generations be comfortable with a certain percentage of the older population dying in order to have a more productive economy? Indeed, that’s exactly what the President is potentially suggesting. Is the economic well-being of the country more important than the lives of older people?

That’s an absolutely awful question but it’s a real one.

Economists have long decided the proper pollution rate should never be zero percent. Automobile accidents kill more than 38,000 people per year but the highways remain open.

What is the proper dosage of economic and public health response?

Young people would be smart to realize that in fact nearly 40 percent of coronavirus hospitalizations are between the ages of 20-54. They would also benefit from understanding that it’s quite hard to receive any type of standard healthcare when the system is overrun with coronavirus patients. Almost all hospitals have stopped elective surgery.

Older people would be smart to realize their near entire reliance on government healthcare is due to the current younger workforce.

Rational fact-based responses and appropriate citizenship are the answers.

Do your part. Control the hysteria. Help out where you can. Stay home when you can. Wash your hands. Buy just enough. Share with your friends. Be honest. Avoid large groups. Don’t be lazy. Don’t gossip. Try to be economically productive in innovative ways.

If you are not in the medical field, don’t have a dogmatic opinion about an evolving, complex medical problem. If you are in the medical field, avoid panicked, emotional filled mass media victim-based martyrdom, and do what you can with what you have and fight the system for more if you need it. It’s a challenge. It might be the biggest ones of our medical careers. It is bad and will get worse. It is hard and will get much harder.

Akin to political parties, people have built camps in two ideological dichotomous forces. One side prepares for the upcoming full-throttle public health zombie apocalypse hoarding supplies and resources while the others ignore that anything is really wrong, frustrated the economy isn’t at all normal. Both are not educated, informed, and rational responses.

Natural disasters of different types have struck and will strike again. This one is brutal. Individual people will rise to the occasion. The market will help with supply and demand and individual people will help with innovation and creativity. This is not the time for mass hysteria. It’s not time to attack one another.

America will press forward because its people will press forward.

  • Richard Menger MD MPA is a neurosurgeon and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a lead editor of the textbook "Economics, Business, Policy of Neurosurgery." He is currently the Chief of Complex Spine Surgery at the University of South Alabama and is on the faculty of the neurosurgery and political science departments.