Daring the Odds: Why the Most Vulnerable Are Still Visible
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For once, the kids are getting it right.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot came down hard on her city’s residents the first weekend of May as 70-degree weather drew them outdoors despite stay-at-home orders remaining in effect. Her disapproval was focused on the young, after city authorities had to disrupt several parties.
“Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can’t get it,” Lightfoot said. “If you want to hang out with your friends, call them. If you want to have a dance party, [use] TikTok or some other form of video.”
Lightfoot’s message was on point — except that the youth who violated quarantine in Chicago that weekend aren’t representative of what’s happening across the United States, and the world.
It isn’t seniors — who are most at risk from the coronavirus — but young adults under the age of 35 who are following social distancing norms most strictly. In an April survey by polling firm Ipsos, conducted among 29,000 adults in 15 countries:
82 percent of adults under 35 said they were self-isolating, compared with 76 percent of those between the ages of 45 and 74.
Among those in the 35–44 age group, 75 percent said they were self-isolating. The survey was conducted in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Russia, India, China, Japan, Vietnam and Australia.
The survey results underscore a dramatic mismatch between those who need to maintain self-isolation protocols the most and their relative willingness to ignore them. The World Health Organization has said that more than 95 percent of people in Europe who died from COVID-19 in April were older than 60.
With American states and European countries beginning to relax lockdowns and reopen schools and businesses, the risks of the virus spreading to the elderly could increase if they’re not consciously practicing social distancing.
So why are the elderly more willing than younger people to carry on with life as usual? Dr. Carmel Bitondo Dyer, one of the country’s top geriatricians and executive director of the Consortium on Aging at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, says one reason could be experience.
“When you think about the older generation, many were born through post-Depression periods, or they lived through World War II,” Dyer says. “I’m old enough to remember when AIDS first became known — there was a lot of fear around that. I just feel they have more of a sense that this too will pass.”
Many older people also have no choice but to leave their homes. Even with ever-increasing life spans, older people are less likely than younger ones to have a living spouse or partner with whom to share outdoor tasks such as grocery shopping. Sixty-nine-year-old Rizwana Khan lives alone in Jackson Heights, New York, and says she has no option but to make weekly visits to the neighborhood supermarket. Her son lives in Houston. “It’s also nice to see friendly faces at the supermarket who know me,” Khan says.
Some elderly people who live alone need to leave the house for medical tests. And with many seniors, Dyer is beginning to see prolonged lockdowns exacerbate loneliness. One patient, she tells me, burst into tears and said, “I just want to see my grandchildren.”
Data shows seniors aren’t the only ones dropping the ball, though. Men, who also have higher death rates — scientists suspect it may be due to their disproportionate smoking intake — have not been practicing social distancing as well as women.
On average across the 15 countries surveyed in the poll, 80 percent of women said they are in quarantine or practice self-isolation, compared with 75 percent of men. One extreme case is Japan, where 70 percent of people who have died from COVID-19 are men, yet only 13 percent of male respondents said they are in quarantine or self-isolation. That’s not entirely surprising, say experts: Masculinity norms have long been social drivers of risk-taking behavior among men, and it appears that the pandemic has not changed that. In many societies, the burden of taking care of children stuck at home also falls disproportionately on women.
It’s also possible that, medical reasons aside, the higher death rates among the elderly and men may in part be due to the fact that they’re not observing social distancing norms as strictly as younger people and women.
The Ipsos survey has limitations, points out Dyer: It failed to break the data down along narrower age groups. By clumping everyone between the ages of 45 and 74 in one group, “it doesn’t really break seniors out,” she says.
Still, one thing is clear: Contrary to popular perception, and despite Lightfoot’s harangue, kids for the most part are the ones getting it right. Maybe it’s time for adults to follow their lead.