Worldwide, people are making huge sacrifices to quell the Covid-19 outbreak. The burden of these sacrifices falls disproportionately on young people.
Across the United States, universities have closed for the year. My governor has announced that all elementary and high schools will be closed at least until May 1st. Bars, restaurants, and malls have been forced to shut down – their employees have been laid off.
Graduating during a recession greatly reduces people’s lifelong earnings. Young people who have the bad luck of entering the workforce in the next few years will suffer the consequences of this shutdown for their entire lives.
Childhood development has an urgency unmatched by other stages of life. When children don’t learn to socialize at the appropriate age, they will always struggle to catch up with their peers. Across the country, huge numbers of children were first learning to read in kindergarten and the early grades. Now they’re watching television. (My kids, too.) With schools closed until May, and summer break coming soon after, they might be watching TV for months. They’ll have to work harder to match other people’s educational achievements, for their entire lives.
Many students depend on school meals to stave off hunger. Kids on free & reduced-price lunch often dread holiday weekends – now, not only have their educations been yanked away, but they’re also suffering through worse food insecurity. Schools and communities are scrambling to provide resources.
Everyone is being asked to stay at home, to keep at least six feet away from other people.
The cost of social isolation is lower if you’re established in a white-collar or professional career. Many office workers can work from home. The people who were cleaning those offices, or selling coffee and bagels to people on their way to work, get laid off.
The cost of social isolation is lower if you have enough money to stock up on supplies. The cost of social isolation is much lower if you’re retired.
Everyone is being asked to make sacrifices, but young people are sacrificing more.
This pandemic wouldn’t be as bad if people could be tested for the virus. We could quarantine the sick and staunch the spread. But U.S. citizens don’t have access to a test.
In their article for the New York Times, Matt Apuzzo and Selam Gebrekidan write that:
As the virus reached into the United States in late January, President Trump and his administration spent weeks downplaying the potential for an outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control [a government agency gutted by our current president] opted to develop its own test rather than rely on private laboratories or the World Health Organization.
The outbreak quickly outpaced Mr. Trump’s predictions, and the C.D.C.’s test kits turned out to be flawed, leaving the United States far behind other parts of the world – both technically and politically.
Indeed, the Republican party consistently argued against preparing for the virus, downplaying its significance, even as Republican senators used information from confidential briefings for illegal insider trading, selling most stocks and buying shares of companies that make teleconferencing software.
This risk of pandemic was exacerbated by voters who put the Republican party in power.
This is a problem that was created by older Americans. By age, these were the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Anyone who is currently younger than 22 – the people who are being made to sacrifice most during this crisis – was not allowed to vote in the 2016 election.
I was too young to understand the 1980s HIV crisis, but I imagine that it was at least as scary as the Covid-19 pandemic for the people at risk.
That virus was inevitably fatal. The deaths were agonizing. Rampant homophobia and cultural stigmatization – even in the medical community – meant there were few places to seek help.
The only way to keep safe was to make sacrifices. Fooling around is fun, but it seemed like it might kill you. To stay alive, you’d have to tamp down your desire.
But if you made that sacrifice, you’d be safe. The people making sacrifices were the people who’d benefit.
What about now, during the Covid-19 pandemic?
My whole family probably contracted Covid-19. There’s no way to know for sure, because at that time the U.S. didn’t even have tests for people experiencing the acute phase of the illness, and there’s still no antibody test to check whether someone was exposed to the virus in the past.
I fell sick on February 10th. I had a pretty bad case, it seems. I had to take high doses of naproxen, but the week-long fever still left me dizzy at times. The only way I could breathe well enough to sleep soundly was by taking puffs of my spouse’s albuterol inhaler. My joints ached so much that it hurt whenever I went running even three weeks later.
My children were sick on February 11th and February 13th. Each napped for half the morning and then felt better. They’d spiked a high fever, but these lasted less than a day.
Only 2% of the people who got sick enough to be tested were 20 years old or younger.
And the risk of death is even more skewed.
Young people are being forced to make tremendous sacrifices. They will suffer the consequences of this disruption to their education for their entire lives. But they aren’t the people who benefit.
Young people have very little risk from Covid-19. It’s no fun to be sick, but when my children contracted what I assume to be Covid-19, it was no worse than any of dozens of other coughs or colds they come down with each year.
Most teenagers – whose lives are being up-ended by school closings – could contract Covid-19 and be totally fine.
My spouse asked, “What would you do about it? Not months ago, but if you were handed this crisis today?”
My answer was the same as always. We should enact a wealth tax – preferably a global wealth tax to undermine the tax havens – and use it to fund a guaranteed basic income.
Using a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income would help address the persistent inequities caused by historical injustice – it would be a sensible form of reparations. It would provide a buffer against the economic insecurity caused by automation and the gig economy. It would transfer money away from the people who drew salaries during the years when we really ravaged our environment, and give it to the people who must now settle for a lower standard of living due to climate change.
Right now, there’s another rationale. Young people are making huge sacrifices during this pandemic; older people receive the benefit. A wealth tax used to fund guaranteed basic income would provide some recompense for the sacrifices of young people.
My family is practicing “social isolation,” although it hasn’t been mandated yet. My children are willingly making sacrifices for the benefit of others, insofar as a four- and six-year-old understand what’s happening. And yet I’ve seen little acknowledgement in the news of the enormous, selfless sacrifice that children are making – that young people across the country are being forced to make.
They will endure the consequences of this sacrifice for their entire lives. This sacrifice almost exclusively benefits others. And yet there’s been no talk of recompense. No gesture of gratitude from the people who benefit toward the people who are paying the costs.
Which, unfortunately, is how our country has often worked.