Decisions about opening schools in the Fall will be made all around the country this next week. I don’t want to denigrate the people making those decisions in any way, because they are facing a lot of very loud, conflicting demands, and will manage to offend nearly everyone in the end, regardless of what they decide. They have all my sympathy.
But I think the school reopening this Fall will be a national catastrophe.
Here’s hoping I’m completely wrong: we’ll know, soon enough.
Everyone wants to get back to the Old Normal. The poor need to have the schools feed their kids, so they can go back to work trying to make rent. The middle-class — what is left of it — want their kids to jump through all the right hoops to get into college. The rich — well, I have no idea what the rich are thinking, other than that they want more, and that getting more for them is good for everyone.
I don’t really see the future, but I’m pretty sure the “Old Normal” is gone for good. There’s a pun there: it is gone, for Good. Because the Old Normal was not good, and growing increasingly fragrant. Time will tell if we replace it with something better, or tumble into the abyss.
My parents both got sick at the same time during the influenza pandemic of 1968/1969, the so-called “Hong-Kong Flu.” Both were very, very ill. It left one side of my mother’s face paralyzed in the end. I don’t recall if my sister and I caught it, but as kids, we bounced back quickly. But watching my parents get that sick — especially my father, who never got sick — was terrifying.
My sister and I might very well have brought the disease home from school.
Hong-Kong flu broke in the spring of 1968 in Hong Kong, and was spreading in the US by September. The first vaccines were already available in August, a month before the flu hit US shores, and a more effective vaccine was released in November. As influenza viruses go, the H3N2 virus responsible was relatively benign: R0 was not as high as, say, measles, mortality rates were low, and long-term complications after recovery were uncommon. While you could get very sick, as my parents did, when you recovered, you recovered. Even better, catching the flu causes the human immune system to produce antibodies specifically designed to destroy that flu virus, and this immunity lasts for years, if not an entire lifetime — to catch influenza again, the virus has to mutate (which it does), but that often comes with a cost to the virus.
COVID-19 is much, much, much worse. R0 is higher, meaning it spreads faster, and mortality is much higher. Complications after recovery are often severe, including heart, lung, liver, kidney, and brain damage. There is early evidence that immunity after catching the virus is not retained: like a common cold, you can catch COVID-19 again and again, which will limit the effectiveness of vaccines and makes COVID a “forever” threat. It is possible that an effective treatment will be found: a shot that knocks out the virus, for instance, before it has a chance to ruin your heart or lungs.
COVID-19 is a different beast from influenza, and it’s going to have a deeper effect on our society.
For one thing, it’s going to break at least a few of the grubby fingers off our Capitalist pharmaceutical model. Our current model requires that you be relatively wealthy to be (medically) healthy.
We’ve eradicated most infectious killers, like plague and smallpox, and the remaining contagious killers are generally “lifestyle-related,” such as syphilis; the rest of the contagions are relatively minor, like a common cold, or the seasonal flu. Most of the remaining diseases are things we “develop” rather than “catch,” like heart-disease, or cancer, and we also tend to label these as “lifestyle-related.”
Though it’s cruel and barbaric, we’ve come to a place as a society where we feel we can justifiably blame the ill for their illnesses. That allows us to justify extorting them for any cure we might have in our magic black bag. If they can’t pay up, we deny them care. After all, it was their own damn fault for getting sick in the first place.
With an airborne infectious killer, the blame for my illness falls on the person who gave it to me, who could have been anyone on the street, from a homeless beggar to a well-groomed banker.
Or my own child, returning home from school.
So here’s how I think it will play out.
They’ll open the schools, under the insistence that “kids don’t give kids COVID.” Then a bunch of teachers will test positive, and all the kids will be sent home for two weeks. Toward the end of that two weeks, some of the kids’ families will be hit by COVID. Some of those people will end up in the hospital, some may suffer crippling complications, and some may die. There will be lawsuits, naming the teachers, the school district, and anyone else involved.
They’ll close the schools.
Then the “treatment” will come out — the anti-COVID pill, or shot, or maybe even a vaccine that covers you for three months, or a year.
They’ll open the schools again. A bunch of teachers will test positive, and they’ll give them all the shot, and give all the kids the shot and send everyone home for two weeks, just to make sure.
Oh, wait: not all the kids will get the shot. Look at the number of dimwits out there who won’t wear a mask. The anti-vaxxers will come out in force. There will be religious exemptions — my mother would have claimed one of those. Someone will die, somewhere, maybe because of someone who refused to take the shot. More lawsuits, now naming and blaming everyone in sight.
They’ll close the schools again.
Assuming something like our society survives, it’s pretty clear to me that we will need, in the end, to move to some kind of system in which a) taxes pay for public health (i.e. Medicare for All), and b) refusal to participate in public health mandates will carry stiff legal penalties.
And how the Libertarians and anti-maskers will scream at that violation of their Freedoms….
As with all such things, the end result (after much flying spittle) will be some kind of a compromise: I can see a split between “public health” and “privilege care,” and specific public health exemptions for insular groups. There are a lot of people who don’t like the public schools, and can’t afford private schools, so they home-school. So long as they stay within an insular group, they can manage their own collective health care under Libertarian principles. It could work.
But this won’t be happening in a vacuum. Other things will be going on. I’ll touch on those in subsequent posts.