Many years ago I attended the wake of a recent college graduate. Brendan had everything ahead of him: he was 21 years old, valedictorian of his university, and on his way to graduate school on a Fulbright scholarship when he simply didn’t wake up one morning. “SADS,” the coroner called it. Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. No discernible cause. For the funeral he was dressed in his father’s professorial regalia, which had first belonged to his grandfather. It was going to be presented to him when he was awarded his doctorate. Now it would be his shroud.
At the wake I noticed his grandmother standing alone next to the casket, a look of deep reflection on her face. She was leaning over his young body, not in an attitude of goodbye but as though she were ready to dive in. I knew exactly what she was thinking: if only she could trade places with him! She had lived a long and eventful life. His was just beginning. She would do anything to bring him out of that casket and take his place. He never got his turn at life.
It’s what I’m thinking now. As I write these words, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and young people are running up the steep hills in the canyon near our house to stay in shape because all the gyms are closed. Tomorrow, the trails will be closed as well. Other young people are working overtime at the Albertsons to keep the shelves stocked and the cash registers running. They’re driving delivery trucks for Amazon and flipping burgers at the local drive-thru.
She would do anything to bring him out of that casket and take his place. He never got his turn at life.
But many other young people are sitting at home, furloughed, wondering how long they’ll be out of work and how they will pay their bills. That $1,200 isn’t going to stretch very far. They can’t go to the gym, can’t socialize with their friends, can’t even go out for dinner or a movie. And they’re sad — senior recitals and sports seasons and semesters abroad have been canceled. So have graduations. Weddings, if they are happening at all, have been changed to a simple “I do” in front of an officiator and a couple of witnesses. Congress has strapped them with another two trillion dollars in debt, much of it for pork projects that couldn’t have passed under normal circumstances.
And why? Because a virus that causes a relatively benign illness in the vast majority of those who contract it is deadly for people who are older or whose health is already compromised. Many people have had it without even knowing it. An estimated 90% of those who contract the virus can treat themselves at home, the way most of us do when we get a cold or the flu. For that, we have shut down the entire world. What have we done to these kids?
Yes, some people are dying. And it sounds like a pretty miserable way to go. I don’t wish it on anyone. But many people are dying in another way, even if they don’t have the virus. Macy’s, already on shaky ground in the past few years, announced this week that it will be furloughing most of its 130,000 employees, and that many of its stores will not reopen. So many people are applying for unemployment benefits that it’s crashing government websites. States don’t have enough money in their coffers to cover all the claims. And what will all these unemployed families do for health insurance, especially as we’re facing a new disease that might require days or weeks of intensive care? Will Congress write another “stimulus bill,” this time to mandate single-payer universal health coverage? What a disaster that would be!
And for what — to make sure we elderly folks don’t get sick?
Weddings, if they are happening at all, have been changed to a simple “I do” in front of an officiator and a couple of witnesses.
Well, I have an idea: what if those of us who are at risk stayed home, and let the ablebodied go back to work? What if the CDC and FDA got out of the way so private labs could produce enough tests to find out who is sick and who isn’t? What if we let the market continue to do what it does best — provide goods and services, drugs and medical equipment, where they are needed — and, in the longer term, get government out of the way so that more doctors and more nurses can be trained and more hospitals built?
Much has been said about “essential” and “nonessential” services. But I disagree. There is no such thing as “nonessential” work. Even the local bowling alley is essential. It’s essential to the small business owner who still has to pay the rent, maintain the machines, and cover the health plans for employees, even while the business is shut down. It’s essential for the employee who sells the tickets and hands out the bowling shoes, and for the one who runs the snack bar. It’s essential for the league player whose mental and physical health is enhanced by playing on the team every week, and for the pals who get together to laugh, chat, and have a beer. Business is essential. Interaction is essential. Normal life is essential. I am very concerned for the mental health of all those whose lives have been severely disrupted by this global shutdown. I’m concerned for the financial health of old people and those who are just starting out. I’m concerned for the emotional health of children traumatized by what they are hearing on TV and in their homes.
But shouldn’t we do whatever it takes? “If it saves just one life . . .”
Even the local bowling alley is essential. It’s essential to the small business owner who still has to pay the rent, maintain the machines, and cover the health plans for employees
Not at the price of an entire generation’s future and freedom. At 67, I’m a member of the at-risk age group, so I’m not pointing a finger at someone else to take the fall. I feel like that bereft grandmother standing over her grandson’s coffin, straightening his doctoral regalia and patting his hand, urging him to get up out of there and let her take his place.
I’ve had my turn at life. I’ve raised my children, kissed my grandchildren, climbed the pyramids, marveled at the moai on Easter Island, written my books and reviews. I have my legacy. I’ve had my turn. I’ll do my best to avoid getting the disease, because I know it won’t be pleasant, and I think I would be missed if I go.
That’s what everyone my age should be doing. People who have preexisting conditions and compromised immune systems should be even more careful. We should stay home and let the rest of the country go back to work. I will gladly give up these “heroic” measures to keep me safe if it will allow my grandchildren to have their turn too.