Coronavirus response: Generations react differently to COVID-19

April 9, 2020
Peter J. McDonnell, MD

He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

This coronavirus thing is certainly a concern,” my physician friend remarked to me.  

“Yes, it is worrisome,” I agreed. “But, fortunately for us, it is only really a major problem for old people. So we don’t need to worry much.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, amigo,” my friend replied, “but you and I qualify as ‘old’ when it comes to this virus.”

Sadly, this is indeed the case. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall mortality rate from COVID-19 in that country is 2.3%. But for children in the first decade of life, the mortality was 0%. Patients aged 10-19, 20-29 and 30-39 all shared a 0.2% death rate.  

Related: COVID-19: Putting safety measures into practice 

And then the age effect begins, with a doubling of the death rate to 0.4% for those in their 40s and a further tripling to 1.3% for patients in their 50s. The death rate continues to increase in patients in their 60s (3.6%), 70s (8.0%) and 80s (14.8%).

So depending on how you look at it, our ability to resist the infection drops as early as the 40s. But even younger people cannot feel “safe,” given that Li Wen-liang, the ophthalmologist who first reported the early stages of the pandemic, was only 34 years of age when he died from the infection.

The variability in mortality rates by age has led to generational differences in how people in our country and other countries are responding to the threat. 

Many older citizens are hunkering down in their homes and avoiding large groups, restaurants, etc., as advised by Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Some cities and states have ordered the closure of bars and restricted restaurants to selling food for takeout. 

Previously by Dr. McDonnell: Li Wenliang: Ophthalmologist hero

At the same time, news organizations are publishing photographs of bars in various cities filled by millennials after work and hundreds or thousands of college students on spring break in southern beach towns filling bars and crowding together in concerts and other large venues.

Some accuse the young partygoers of irresponsible behavior. When asked why they aren’t heeding the advice of public health experts to stay at home and practice “social distancing,” some of these young folks say that they want to continue living their lives and that social interaction is an important component of that.

Related: COVID-19: Dealing with patients amid pandemic

Also, some say, it is the older “baby boomer” generation that has to fear the virus. In what strikes many as a somewhat callous and perhaps sophomoric twist, these youngsters have used social media to rename the COVID-19 with  #BoomerRemover.  

According to some pundits in the media, the #BoomerRemover phenomenon is a reflection of the younger generation’s resentment of the problems they attribute to us oldsters: environmental damage, global warming, income inequality, nuclear weapons.

They assert that it is time for us older people to step aside and let the younger generation take over and provide better solutions.

On the other hand, I have personally observed younger people looking out for their older friends and neighbors by delivering food and other necessities or running errands for them while the epidemic runs its course. 

Related: COVID-19: Life in the time of coronavirus

The demographics of those killed by this pandemic vary distinctly from the 1918-19 so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic that took an estimated 50 million lives and preferentially targeted young individuals (including soldiers, nurses and house officers).

I believe keeping a sense of humor is a good thing, but personally consider it sophomoric behavior to be partying at the beach while using social media cheering on the virus that kills older people.

But many of us Baby Boomers were not always kind and respectful of our elders when we were young. Isn’t that why they call them college sophomores?

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