COVID-19 and the Question of Competing Values
by Daniel A. Kaufman
**Note: This essay goes up in the midst of another wave of Covid-19 in the US. In some places, it is a first wave and in others, a second. Regardless it rightly disturbs us, and I think many will be tempted to dismiss what I say below, as if it is obviously refuted by what’s going on now. I don’t think so. Indeed, I would argue that the longer this goes on, the more relevant is the analysis I’m going to offer. And my aim, really, is not to say that what I suggest should be done right now or at any particular time: that will always be a judgment call. Rather, I want to encourage us to think about what we are doing from within a different frame and while prioritizing certain values that I think we have largely ignored or dismissed as insignificant.
One of the subjects I took up in my recent Summer of 2020 essay is our Covid-19 mitigation strategy. My expressed attitude was one of increasing discomfort, something that has not changed. Indeed, at this point, I can no longer support our current approach to Covid-19, especially now that we seem to be undergoing a second wave; one that already is reversing the nascent, fragile “reopening” of our society that only just started, which means that the prospect of any kind of return to normalcy is pushed even farther into the future. We have reached – and passed – the point at which the harm being caused by our current mitigation strategy exceeds that which is being relieved by it. And while I think that case can be made across a number of different dimensions, what I want to focus on here – and what was the focus in the Summer of 2020 essay – is the harm we are doing to young people. First, because I think this is the most significant of the damage that we are inflicting by way of our current mitigation strategies, and second, because it offers the best opportunity to compare harms across very disparate categories, which we sorely need to get better at doing. We privilege material well-being in a reflexive and unthinking way that sometimes causes us to get things seriously wrong, and this is one of those times.
Not that one can’t try to make the case on the purely material front. As far as I know, no one has made any serious effort to calculate how many people will get various cancers and other dangerous illnesses as a result of months of suspended routine medical services. Or how many of the elderly will die sooner and suffer greater, as a result of prolonged isolation (my mother’s dementia has gotten much worse over this period, to the point where she no longer wants to leave her bedroom, and I cannot travel to NY to be with her). I’ve seen no real analysis of the effect on public health of mass unemployment, loss of livelihood, unimaginable stress, etc. So, as far as I’m concerned, our public conversation regarding mitigation strategies has been deficient and derelict, even when considering only material values.
But it’s young people I want to focus on, here, and specifically, their psychosocial development and major life events, and the essence of what I want to say is easily summarized:
The psychosocial well-being of young people and their capacity to fully experience major life events is of enormous importance, and we (their elders) should be willing to endure significant costs in protecting and preserving them.
I am going to stipulate that real – meaning in-person – social interaction is essential to the mental health and flourishing of young people. (If the devastating effects on mental and social health of our reckless experiment with ubiquitous communications devices and social media on young people hasn’t demonstrated this to readers, then nothing I can say here will.) Kids, teenagers, and college-age students were already “socially distanced” far too much. Covid-19 has made that much worse, and the terrible effects we’ve been seeing for years now, in terms of mental illness and social dysfunction, are simply going to metastasize to the point that we will have a full-blown youth crisis on our hands; the kind of crisis that cannot be fixed by any medical treatment or vaccine and in comparison with which Covid-19 will seem simple.
Young people also have the right – and the need – to fully experience and enjoy life’s major events. My daughter’s Bat-Mitzvah – and all the preparation leading up to it – had a tremendous impact on her, both with regard to her Jewish identity and her desire to pursue a career in vocal music. Attending a summer music program at NYU several years ago provided her first real taste of serious competition and instruction and helped her to develop the confidence – more, the sheer nerve – required to successfully navigate not just her future music education, but the crazily competitive environment of the professional music world. I could go on and on, but you get the drift.
Yet, now, her Prom has been taken away from her. Her High School graduation has been taken away from her. Her first semester at Indiana University will be a seriously diminished experience. Her first date with a boy still lies in her future. She wants to be involved in Hillel and the Jewish Greek system. Currently, IU’s plan is to fully reopen, with mandatory social distancing and ubiquitous mask-wearing at all times, but I easily could see this new wave of Covid spooking them, causing them to keep the campus closed and go fully online. How long will my daughter and everyone else’s daughters have to wait, before they will be permitted to have the life experiences and social lives that all of us older people have already enjoyed? And how long should she and they have to wait?
In my view, no longer. At this point, there is no denying that our mitigation strategies overwhelmingly serve the purpose of protecting those in their late 50’s and 60’s and older, for when you remove this population from the statistics, what’s left are numbers that no one would ever lock down anything over.
Indeed, if we still had mandatory retirement (as we used to), our mitigation strategies today would be entirely different. The reason my students are going to have to suffer a masked semester (or year) and be forbidden from engaging in any of the sorts of social activities that are the entire reason for having a residential campus in the first place is because of the risk posed to us – older and elderly faculty and staff – not to them. Yes, I am aware that in this most recent wave, more young people are being affected and some even severely. But this will always be the case to some degree – college students living in dorms are prone to meningitis, of which, periodically, there are outbreaks – and I would argue that the risks to them from Covid-19 remain sufficiently low that they are not a credible reason for continuing to impose the extraordinary constraints on young people’s lives that we are.
Beyond privileging the well-being of the old and older over that of the young, which is wrong in itself – you don’t sacrifice someone who hasn’t had his or her turn yet for someone who has – our current efforts at mitigation reflect the overwhelming prioritization of material well-being over all other aspects of human flourishing. And it is here that I think we need to be the most careful in our thinking, as it is so easy to get things wrong.
In one respect, it makes perfect sense to prioritize material well-being over other forms of flourishing, as it is the predicate on which they rest. It is difficult to flourish socially, professionally, etc., if one is seriously ill and impossible if one is dead. But it is essential that we remember that the reason we care so much about material well being is so that we and our loved ones can flourish in these other ways. So, what are these things worth? What is someone’s Bat Mitzvah worth? Or prom? Or High School graduation? Or first romance? The answer is everything, for not only are these the things that make up a life, they are what life is for.
The balance, then, must be this. When the threat to material well-being is so great that our capacity to flourish is undercut, it must be prioritized above all else. But when material well-being becomes an end in itself – when the very pursuit of it is what is undercutting our capacity to flourish – we have to recognize that things have taken a wrong turn and change course.
If we are not at this point already, we are rapidly approaching it. Those in my age cohort and older need to step back so that our children can fully live their lives. We need to quarantine so that they no longer need to. If my retirement meant that my students could return to college and their lives in a normal fashion, I would do it in a second. I’ve already had my chance to do those things, and I can’t bear to think that now I’m taking away theirs, just so I can stick around the office a bit longer than the decades I’ve already been there.
**The featured image is of Victoria Kaufman at six years of age (bottom right) with her Daisy Troop.