In April, I wrote several essays and articles about our collective response to Covid-19.
I was worried – and am still worried, honestly – that we weren’t making the best choices.
It’s hard not to feel cynical about the reasons why we’ve failed. For instance, our president seems more concerned about minimizing the visibility of disaster than addressing the disaster itself. We didn’t respond until this virus had spread for months, and even now our response has become politicized.
Also, the best plans now would include a stratified response based on risk factor. Much more than seasonal influenza, the risk of serious complications from Covid-19 increases with age. Because we didn’t act until the virus was widespread, eighty-year-olds should be receiving very different recommendations from forty- and fifty-year-olds.
Our national response is being led by an eighty-year-old physician, though, and he might be biased against imposing exceptional burdens on members of his own generation (even when their lives are at stake) and may be less sensitive to the harms that his recommendations have caused younger people.
I’m aware that this sounds prejudiced against older folks. That’s not my intent.
I care about saving lives.
Indeed, throughout April, I was arguing that our limited Covid-19 PCR testing capacity shouldn’t be used at hospitals. These tests were providing useful epidemiological data, but in most cases the results weren’t relevant for treatment. The best therapies for Covid-19 are supportive care – anti-inflammatories, inhalers, rest – delivered as early as possible, before a patient has begun to struggle for breath and further damage their lungs. Medical doctors provided this same care whether a Covid-19 test came back positive or negative.
(Or, they should have. Many patients were simply sent home and told to come back if they felt short of breath. Because they didn’t receive treatment early enough, some of these patients then died.)
Instead, our limited testing capacity should have been used at nursing homes. We should have been testing everyone before they went through the doors of a nursing home, because people in nursing homes are the most vulnerable to this virus.
I realize that it’s an imposition to make people get tested before going in, either for care or to work – even with real-time reverse-transcription PCR, you have to wait about two hours to see the results. But the inconvenience seems worthwhile, because it would save lives.
From March 25 until May 10 – at the same time that I was arguing that our limited Covid-19 tests be used at nursing homes instead of hospitals – the state of New York had a policy stating that nursing homes were prohibited from testing people for Covid-19.
I really dislike the phrase “asymptomatic transmission” – it’s both confusing and inaccurate, because viral shedding is itself a symptom – but we knew early on that Covid-19 could be spread by people who felt fine. That’s why we should have been using PCR tests before letting people into nursing homes.
But in New York, nursing homes were “prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
Not only do nursing homes have the highest concentration of vulnerable people, they also have far fewer resources than hospitals with which to keep people safe. Nursing home budgets are smaller. Hallways are narrower. Air circulation is worse. The workers lack protective gear and training in sterile procedure. Nursing home workers are horrendously underpaid.
The low wages of nursing home workers aren’t just unethical, they’re dangerous. A recent study found that higher pay for nursing home workers led to significantly better health outcomes for residents.
This study’s result as described in the New York Times – “if every county increased its minimum wage by 10 percent, there could be 15,000 fewer deaths in nursing homes each year” – is obviously false. But even though the math doesn’t work out, raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do.
If we raised the minimum wage, we probably would have a few years in which fewer people died in nursing homes. But then we’d see just as many deaths.
Humans can’t live forever. With our current quality of care, maybe nursing home residents die at an average age of 85. If we raise the minimum wage, we’ll get better care, and then nursing home residents might die at an average age of 87. After two years, we’d reach a new equilibrium and the death rate would be unchanged from before.
But the raw number here – how many people die each year – isn’t our biggest concern. We want people to be happy, and an increase in the minimum wage would improve lives: both nursing home residents and workers. Which I’m sure that study’s lead author, economist Kristina Ruffini, also believes. The only problem is that things like “happiness” or “quality of life” are hard to quantify.
Especially when you’re dealing with an opposition party that argues that collective action can never improve the world, you have to focus on quantifiable data. Happiness is squishy. A death is unassailable.
Indeed, that’s partly why we’ve gotten our response to Covid-19 wrong. Some things are harder to measure than others. It’s easy to track the number of deaths caused by Covid-19. (Or at least, it should be – our president is still understating the numbers.)
It’s much harder to track the lives lost to fear, to domestic violence, and to despair (no link for this one – suddenly Fox News cares about “deaths of despair,” only because they dislike the shutdown even more than they dislike poor people). It’s hard to put a number on the value of 60 million young people’s education.
But we can’t discount the parts of our lives that are hard to measure – often, they’re the most important.
I should preface these remarks by stating that my political views qualify as “extremely liberal” in the United States.
I’m a well-trained economist – I completed all but the residency requirement for a masters at Northwestern – but I don’t give two shits about the “damage we’re doing to our economy,” except insofar as financial insecurity causes psychological harm to people in poverty. Our economy should be slower, to combat climate change and inequality.
One of my big fears during this epidemic is that our current president will accidentally do something correctly and bolster his chances of reelection. The damage that his first term has already caused to our environment and our judiciary will take generations to undo – imagine the harm he could cause with two.
And yet, in arguing that our response to the Covid-19 epidemic is misguided, I seem to be in agreement with our nation’s far right.
As far as I can tell, the far right opposes the shutdown because they’re motivated by philosophies that increase inequality. Many of them adore Ayn Rand’s “Who will stop me?” breed of capitalism, as though they should be free to go outside and cough on whomever they want. They dislike the shutdown because they think our lives are less important than the stock market.
By way of contrast, I care about fairness. I care about the well-being of children. I care about our species’ future on this planet. It’s fine by me if the stock market tanks! But I’ve written previously about the lack of scientific justification for this shutdown, and I’m worried that this shutdown is, in and of itself, an unfair response.
Quarantine could have prevented this epidemic from spreading. If we had acted in December, this coronavirus could have been contained. But we did nothing until several months after the Covid-19 epidemic began in the United States.
Then schools were closed: first for two weeks, then a month, then the entire year.
Stay-at-home orders were issued: first for two weeks, then extended to a month. No data supports the efficacy of these orders – haphazard, partial attempts at social distancing, from which certain people, like my buddy doing construction for a new Amazon facility, have been exempted. And no metrics were announced that might trigger an end to the shutdown.
Currently, the stay-at-home orders last until the end of April. But, as we approach that date, what do people expect will be different? In the United States, we still can’t conduct enough PCR tests – and even these tests yield sketchy data, because they might have false negative rates as high as 30%, and they’re only effective during the brief window of time — perhaps as short as one week — before a healthy patient clears the virus and becomes invisible to testing.
Based on research with other coronaviruses, we expect that people will be immune to reinfection for about a year, but we don’t know how many will have detectable levels of antibody in their blood. As of this writing, there’s still no serum test.
The Italian government is considering the dystopian policy of drawing people’s blood to determine if they’ll be eligible for a permit to leave their homes. If you were worried about the injustice that the virus itself imposed on people who are elderly or immunocompromised, this is worse!
We know, clearly, that the shutdown has been causing grievous harm. Domestic violence is on the rise. This is particularly horrible for women and children in poverty, trapped in close quarters with abusers. The shutdown is creating conditions that increase the risk of drug addiction, suicide, and the murder of intimate partners.
We don’t know whether the shutdown is even helping us stop the Covid-19 epidemic. And we still don’t know whether Covid-19 is scary enough to merit this response. As of this writing, our data suggest that it isn’t.
Covid-19 is a rare breed, though: a communicable disease where increased wealth correlates with increased risk.
And so we’re taking extreme measures to benefit the most privileged generation to ever walk the face of this Earth, at the cost of great harm to vulnerable populations. This is why I feel dismayed.
Hopefully I can present some numbers simply enough to explain.
Many diseases are more likely to kill you if you’re poor.
Malaria kills between 400,000 and one million people every year. The vast majority are extremely poor, and many are children – the World Health Organization estimates that a child dies of malaria every thirty seconds.
Wealth protects against malaria in two ways. Wealthy people are less likely to live in parts of the world with a high prevalence of malaria (most of the deaths each year occur in Africa and India), and wealthy people can buy effective anti-malarial medications.
I took prophylactic Malarone when I visited Ecuador and India. Lo and behold, I did not get sick.
I believe Malarone costs about a dollar per day. I am very privileged.
HIV kills between 700,000 and one million people every year. Again, the vast majority are poor. HIV is primarily transmitted through intimate contact – exposure to blood, needle sharing, or sex – so this virus rarely spreads across social boundaries in stratified communities.
In the United States, HIV risk is concentrated among people living in our dying small towns, people without homes in inner cities, and people trapped inside the criminal justice system.
It seems that these people are all easy to ignore.
Wealth will protect you even if you do contract HIV. We’ve developed effective anti-retroviral therapies. If you (or your government) can pay for these pills, you can still have a long, full life while HIV positive. About 60% of the people dying of HIV happen to have been born in Africa, though, and cannot afford anti-retrovirals.
The second-highest cause of death among people in low-income countries is diarrhea. Diarrhea kills between one million and two million people each year, including about 500,000 children under five years old.
These deaths would be easy to treat and even easier to prevent.
Seriously, you can save these people’s lives with Gatorade! (Among medical doctors, this is known as “oral rehydration therapy.”) Or you could prevent them from getting sick in the first place by providing clean water to drink.
We could provide clean water to everyone – worldwide, every single person – for somewhere between ten billion and one hundred billion dollars. Which might sound like a lot of money, but that is only one percent of the amount we’re spending on the Covid-19 stimulus bill in the United States.
We could do it. We could save those millions of lives. But we’re choosing to let those people die.
Because, you see, wealthy people rarely die of diarrhea. Clean water is piped straight into our homes. And if we do get sick – I have, when I’ve traveled – we can afford a few bottles of Gatorade.
Instead, wealthy people die of heart disease. Stroke. Alzheimer’s. Cancer.
If you’re lucky enough to live past retirement age, your body will undergo immunosenescence. This is unfortunate but unavoidable. In old age, our immune systems stop protecting us from disease.
Age-related immunosenescence explains the high prevalence of cancer among elderly people. All of our bodies develop cancerous cells all the time. Usually, our immune systems kill these mutants before they have the chance to grow into tumors.
Age-related immunosenescence also explains why elderly people die from the adenoviruses and coronaviruses that cause common colds in children and pre-retirement-age adults. Somebody with a functional immune system will get the sniffles, but if these viruses are set loose in a nursing home, they can cause systemic organ failure and death.
I haven’t seen this data presented yet – due to HIPAA protections, it can’t easily be collected – but Covid-19, on average, seems to kill wealthier people than influenza.
But on a population level, wealth is correlated with increased risk.
Part of this wealth gap is due to age. Currently we don’t have enough data to know exactly where the risk curves for seasonal influenza and Covid-19 intersect, but it seems to be around retirement age. If you’re younger than retirement age, seasonal influenza is more deadly. If you’re older than retirement age, Covid-19 is more deadly.
And in the United States, if you’re older than retirement age, you’re more likely to be wealthy.
Because these people were receiving expensive medical care, they were able to survive despite their other diseases. Imagine what would have happened if these people had chanced to be born in low-income countries: they would already be dead.
This is a tragedy: all over the world, millions of people die from preventable causes, just because they had the bad luck of being born in a low-income country rather than a rich one.
We don’t have data on this yet, but it’s likely that Covid-19 will have a much smaller impact in Africa than in Europe or the United States.
When my father was doing rounds in a hospital in Malawi, his students would sometimes say, “We admitted an elderly patient with …” And then my father would go into the room. The patient would be 50 years old.
Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people in their 80s and 90s. Great privilege has allowed so many people in Europe and the United States to live until they reached these high-risk ages.
Our efforts to “flatten the curve,” in addition to increasing many people’s risk of death (from domestic violence, suicide, and the lifelong health repercussions of even a few months of sedentary living), will save relatively few lives, even among our country’s at-risk population.
The benefit of this shutdown is simply the difference between how many people would die if we did nothing, compared to how many people will die if we “flatten the curve.”
Assuming that our efforts to flatten the curve succeed – and neglecting all the other risks of this strategy – we’ll be able to provide ventilation to everyone. But there will still be a lot of deaths. The shutdown will not have helped those people. The shutdown is only beneficial for the small number who would be treated in one scenario, would not be treated in another, and who actually benefit from the treatment.
Their lives matter, too. Many of us have a friend or relative whose life was cut short by this. But something that we have to accept is that we all die. Our world would be horrible if people could live forever. Due to immunosenescence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep people alive after they reach their late 70s and 80s.
And the priorities of elderly people are different from mine. I care deeply about the well-being of children and our planet’s future. That’s why I write a column for our local newspaper discussing ways to ameliorate our personal contribution to climate change. That’s why my family lives the way we do.
These priorities may be quite different from what’s in the short-term best interests of an 80-year-old.
Schools are closed. Children are suffering. Domestic violence is on the rise. All to protect people who have experienced such exceptional privilege that they are now at high risk of dying from Covid-19.
Our national response to Covid-19 is being directed by a 79-year-old doctor. I haven’t gotten to vote in the presidential primary yet, but if I get to vote at all, I’ll be allowed to choose whomever I prefer from a selection of a 77-year-old white man or a 78-year-old white man. Then comes the presidential election, where there’ll be an additional 73-year-old white man to choose from.
It makes me wonder, what would our national response be like if we were facing a crisis as risky as Covid-19, but where elderly people were safe and children were most at risk?
And then I stop wondering. Because we are facing a crisis like that.