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A generational blowback in the age of contagion

  • Published at 08:34 pm March 19th, 2020
Italy boats
Italy’s ageing population left it more vulnerable / REUTERS

The fate of the elderly may depend on the conscientiousness of the young

Despite being almost two weeks into its nationwide lockdown, Italy lost 475 people to the coronavirus in 24 hours this Wednesday, the largest single-day jump in any country since the global pandemic first began to spread in Wuhan. 

The authors of a new paper in the journal Demographic Science think they’ve figured out why: Age, and “social-interconnectedness.”

Italy has the second-oldest population in the world (23% over 65) and its culture is built around intergenerational living, where grandparents enjoy being part of the lives of their grandchildren. 

Thus, one of the greatest things about Italy -- and indeed about being human -- is repositioned under the category of social flaw, even mortal threat. 

The most cruel aspect of our still-developing “age of contagion” is its remorseless cleaving apart of families, under the rubrics of “social distancing” and “self-isolation.” In these awful times, the enemy is us. 

But even if the threat of infection of the coronavirus could come from anywhere (experts project that 70% of the world’s population will contract it) this particular pestilence’s history indicates that it singles out the most vulnerable to wreak its worst: The elderly, and those already “immunocompromised.” 

As the prime minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, put it in his impressively statesmanlike public address earlier this week: “The vast majority of us who contract Covid-19 will experience [only] a mild illness, but some will be hospitalized, and sadly some people will die. 

“We cannot stop this virus but working together we can slow it in its tracks and push it back.” 

Varadkar is the son of a nurse and another doctor (who migrated to Ireland from the Konkan coast of India), and himself qualified in medicine. 

He spoke in wonderfully compassionate terms: “At a certain point we will advise the elderly and people who have a long-term illness to stay at home for several weeks. 

“We call this ‘cocooning’ and it will save many lives, particularly the most vulnerable, the most precious in our society. It’s going to be very difficult to stay apart from our loved ones. Most grandparents just want to give their grandkids a hug and a kiss -- but as hard as this is, we need to keep our physical distance to stop the virus.” 

Such empathy, but the subtext is pure steel. Already, in France, you need to fill out a form to leave your house, and 100,000 police officers are deployed to enforce the lockdown. 

Across the border in Spain, the authorities are using drones to ensure people stay home. Breaking quarantine is penalized with imprisonment, and fines up to 600,000 euros. 

Also this week, in the US, San Francisco, and surrounding Bay Area counties instituted an unprecedented “shelter in place” policy requiring residents to stay home except in very limited circumstances. Failure to comply is an official misdemeanor. 

But even while the West is racing to catch up in awareness and action to East Asia -- where the coronavirus’s severity first showed itself -- the scenario is very different in the sub-continent. 

For example, India shut its borders to foreigners, but there’s no social distancing to speak of, and later this month the Ram Navami Mela will bring millions of devotees together, literally crammed elbow-to-elbow in Ayodhya. 

This is ignorance, and poor leadership, but there’s another factor as well, which is the general feeling amongst young people that -- as the Wall Street Journal recently put it -- “the new social constraints are disproportionate and unfairly target their generation.” 

The numbers are on their side. If you’re under 30 (and relatively healthy) there are many worse threats to your health than coronavirus. Illustratively, no one in that age group is amongst the pandemic’s thousands of victims in Italy. 

What is more, this is precisely the generation which has been consistently scorned, disdained, and set upon by the hard edge of state policies, when it has pursued action to serve its own preoccupations: Climate change, the environment, civil rights. 

“You say you love your children above all else,” said Greta Thunberg, “and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes.” For her activism, the 17-year-old received an endless, horrific stream of abuse from her elders. 

In India, when students stood up for constitutional values, their campuses were violently attacked, and they have been accused of being “anti-national.” 

So what happens now, when the fate of the same people who oppressed them rests in the collective behaviour of their victims? 

Wisdom may be dawning. Just yesterday, the acclaimed young Pakistani author Sanam Maher (she’s 34) shared an epiphany on Twitter: “The way many of us are pleading with friends/family to stay home, cursing those who don’t seem to understand #FlattenTheCurve -- is this the kind of panic and anxiety climate change activists felt every damn day as they tried to convince us we need to radically change how we live?” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa,  India. 

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