4 min read

We Need a National Discussion on Living with COVID-19 for the Long Term

The thing that bothers me is that our national leadership is acting like the COVID-19 virus is some sort of temporary thing. Our leaders need to underscore the message that this virus will be here for a while; a year, maybe years.
We Need a National Discussion on Living with COVID-19 for the Long Term
Photo by Yuri Levin on Unsplash

The thing that bothers me is that our national leadership is acting like the COVID-19 virus is some sort of temporary thing. Our leaders need to underscore the message that this virus will be here for a while; a year, maybe years.

We hope there is a vaccine coming this January (which would be faster than any other vaccine development, testing, and distribution, ever), but that is not the same as a guarantee.

We need to stop talking about cleaning desks for the first week of school. The reopening will be a chaotic tragedy. Instead, we should be discussing ways we will cope over the next few years, until 2022 or so.

I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which warns that children are psychologically impacted by lack of brick and mortar schools and summer camps, by a lack of interaction with other children, by a lack of new learning, or confusion over upended routines. And worse things, such as hunger or being trapped in abusive households.

Children feel the stress of adults around them. They pick up on the ambient strain as families are economically devastated, small businesses get decimated, entire industries falter, and lives are put on hold — weddings, milestone celebrations, job searches, memorial services, epic vacations, family reunions.

But I have to ask, how can we believe that things will be OK if the kids walk through the doors of their schools this August? Is that some magic we are hoping will take place? Or is this the ultimate belief in our American Exceptionalism? Do we think kids will pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Do we believe they will “get over it”?

Of course, they won’t. And countering the conclusions of the AAP, new research finds that young people will spread the virus. A major study of 65,000 people shows kids aged 10–19 spread the coronavirus, “at least as well as adults do.” And, “children under 10 were roughly half as likely as adults to spread the virus to others.”

That means teachers and school staff and bus drivers will get sick or worse from massive reopenings, especially in the many hotspots around our nation. So will adults at home. Ranks of substitutes will grow thin. Kids will be folded into already socially distanced but crowded rooms. I don’t want my kids to see their teacher vanish from the school and never come back and wonder for the rest of their lives if they had anything to do with that.

If the schools reopen, they will soon afterward collapse. We will have sickened teachers and staff and support personnel, and for what? To further traumatize children by once again knocking their schedules and routines all over the table?

And when we have to go back to an online environment, there will be even fewer professionals available to help do the hard work of implementation because we infected them all in August.

Local and national leaders must set expectations by planning not for next month and hoping for magic, but by designing for the long term. New case numbers are increasing in the Southern US and hot spots everywhere daily and in 7- and 14-day trends. There is no national strategy rolling out to slow the spread; it was only on July 20th that President Trump finally tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask and said it was “patriotic.” Is that the best we can do? We should be discussing what it will mean to have 7 million cases in the US this December because that’s where we are headed. Let that sink in.

I ask, how will that world work? Can I still get my Jimmy John’s so fast I’ll freak? Will my grocery delivery system be in place? Will the gas stations be open? Will ambulance drivers be available? In my city, the local firefighters weren’t interested in wearing masks, and then there were outbreaks in three station houses, and just like that, 100 of them got sick. Who’s going to put out the fires?

Instead of talking about school reopening, we all need to be talking about six months, one year, two-year plans for the economy, including workforce relief, supply chain redundancy, food and water management, and yes, education. And something in there about the election in November and the fact that most poll workers are elderly folks who, I wonder why probably aren’t going to show up for work this time around. A national education campaign on using mail-in ballots must be set in motion immediately. Such an effort is not about politics per se; it’s about our pivotal right as Americans to have a functional apparatus that facilitates our rights to vote. The way things look, that right is in jeopardy.

It all is in jeopardy.

Our situation is more significant than “the kids need to be in school so parents can work.” I know a lot of people are not working. As of June 29th, 2020, nearly half of Americans are without work, according to the employment to population ratio. Yes, childcare is a huge issue. But so is hospital capacity. So is morgue capacity. If we open up 56 million more avenues for virus transmission vis-à-vis our public school children, will it increase parents’ opportunities to return to work? Or will it just sicken more parents?

While we are here, let me ask why are we here? Why haven’t we, as a nation, made public school a priority? Why are we in a situation where people need to use the schools as childcare and food kitchens and counseling centers?

We need a national, long-term strategy. A discussion managed from the top down, a robust, data-driven, community, and policy informed discussion. We need to be real for a minute with each other. COVID-19 is real. Let’s all look at it and ask how we want to address how we need to live and support each other and care for our elderly and children and neighborhood business owners and farmers and laborers, plus manage our health and mental and physical fitness and cash flow.

Let’s do that instead of throwing up our hands and heading out to do back to school shopping. We don’t need pencils and backpacks and two-to four -week, short-term strategies. We need to accept that this is real and is here with us, probably forever. Yes, we can maybe start by agreeing on that: in this one sense, the novel coronavirus is just like the flu. We need to learn to live with them both.