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Senior citizens and COVID-19
Now and Then
roger branch

COVID-19 has shoved aside pleasant narratives about back then, insisting upon attention to present threats to life as we know it globally, and more specifically, to the lives of senior citizens.

First, let it be clear that older people are not more likely to come down with this virus than others. Age itself does not put us at risk. It is other health conditions that accumulate with aging — heart problems, diabetes, breathing disorders — which make older people disproportionately likely to suffer serious — even fatal — infections. Second, it is not a death sentence for every elder who contracts the illness. A 104-year-old World War II veteran survived and is doing well.

Third, younger people who are vulnerable because of preexisting conditions — and some who have none — also are dying. The governor of Florida seems to be uninformed about this because he recently declared that he had not heard of anyone under the age of 25 that had contracted COVID-19. I must not comment.

I do have a message for my fellow old geezers. We will survive this thing. At least some of us will. Even if everyone does everything right, some of us will die of those pre-existing conditions, other illnesses or accidents before it is all over. And I doubt that it is going to be over as quickly as the “pushers” are predicting.

Let us stand up on our hind legs (if we can) and declare that we have lived through hard times before. Those from the eldest echelon remember the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict and many more gut-wrenching trials. We understand the scary prospect of unemployment today, but remember that millions of people were unemployed for years during the Great Depression. However, here we are, the survivors, knowing “how to be abased and how to abound,” to borrow from St. Paul.

For some seniors, COVID-19 is indeed a mortal threat. Those who live in nursing homes, veterans’ homes and the like — some 1.5 million — are at serious risk. It is not that these facilities are unsanitary dens of neglect, though some might be. The problem lies with having numerous vulnerable people in close contact with one another. The first COVID-19 outbreak in the United States was in a nursing home in Washington state, where many residents died. Similar events are occurring in places like Pennsylvania. The same sort of conditions make shelters for the homeless dangerous places.

Reminder: the vast majority of people who get sick with COVID-19 survive and that includes older people. The exact number and proportion is unknown because no one knows how many people are infected, have been infected, even how many have been infected but never felt sick (asymptomatic). Only testing on the scale of that done in South Korea could produce that information and now it is too late to get a complete picture. But we do know that thousands of identified patients have survived.

Remember also that the sea of ignorance about this virus is wide and deep. Therefore, its impact, present and future, still defies prediction. Tentative projections today are often extrapolations on patterns of influenza viruses, a step of hope not certainty. Can a recovered patient be re-infected? Studies of such patients in South Korea turned up a significant number of reinfections. Some experts in this country challenge these findings, but South Korean medical practices stifled the development of the illness there while the ball was badly fumbled here. Who is smarter?

I am unpersuaded by the optimistic projections of victory in the United States. The news is all about reaching the apex of the curve of illness in New York. Great, but New York is not the whole country. Leaders in the Pacific three states are guardedly hopeful that stringent restrictions of mobility there are working. However, COVID-19 has not yet hit many major cities full force, but it will. It has barely touched rural regions that are short on hospitals and resources needed for such a disaster, but the number of cases in such places balloons daily.

The global picture is even more disturbing. There are reports of new victims in China among nationals returning from Russia. Vladimir Putin just confessed that the medical system in Russia had not done a good job combating the virus. Humans are mobile these days. What is going to happen when the plague hits Africa, where most countries have severely limited medical systems? Or South America, the Caribbean Islands, poorer countries in Southeast Asia? When these people get sick, will any of them make it to this country, bringing a new wave of infection with them?

There is a lot of agitation to “get the country moving again,” meaning abolishing restrictions on activity so that people go back to work, provoking certain and rapid economic recovery. It is not entirely clear who will buy our goods and services given the worldwide impact of COVID-19, but....

If this policy results in a far greater number of people getting sick and dying with COVID-19, as medical scientists insist, what about us old folks? Well, the lieutenant governor of Texas recently declared that we should be glad to die to insure a strong economy for our grandchildren. Without hesitation, I would give my life for any of my four grandchildren, either of my two children or one of my three great-grandchildren. However, I am not ready to die for an economic recovery, which might or might not happen and might or might not be great for my offspring. Still, his boss, the governor of Texas, says he is poised to fire off an executive order removing restrictions any day now. It appears that President Trump might beat him to the punch, leading a slew of other governors to do the same.

With heart problems and other health issues, I can hardly wait for my potential death sentence. Whatever happened to “We are all in this together?”


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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