Coronavirus: Easing Lockdowns, Opening Schools
Is it madness to talk about ending lockdowns, opening schools, and getting back to business as usual? Is it madness not to? Or is the truth somewhere in between?
To conservative COVID-19 skeptics, ending all lockdowns and returning as quickly as possible to business as usual seems a no-brainer. Progressives preoccupied with COVID might retort that easing the current lockdowns is a “no-brainer,”as in you’d need to have no brains even to consider such a thing.
I think both extremes are wrong. Here’s why.
On the one hand, COVID continues to be a serious public health threat, particularly though not exclusively in the South and Southwest, with many states continuing to report record numbers of new cases.
Wearing face masks in public, social distancing, and washing our hands as frequently as possible should not be controversial or politicized. We should all embrace these precautions for the common good.
On the other hand, while the pandemic is definitely cause for ongoing concern, it’s not the only cause for concern.
We should also be concerned about focusing only on the health dangers of COVID and otherwise doing everything possible to perpetuate and sustain lockdowns.
Ongoing and pending consequences of a one-size-fits-all red-alert lockdown approach include:
- Increased financial hardship among the most vulnerable, including increased food insecurity and a “tidal wave” of personal and business bankruptcies
- An “unprecedented” mental health crisis — particularly devastating for women and parents of minor children — caused by factors including increased financial stress, social isolation, confinement, and anxiety (elevated by constant, at times heightened or exaggerated warnings about the danger)
- Increased substance abuse, overdose deaths, and suicides; potentially overwhelmed mental-health services
- Elevated rates and reduced visibility of intimate-partner abuse (for many of the most vulnerable, home is not always the safest place to be)
- A likely spike in divorce rates, boosted in part by financial hardship and lockdown-related stress (some marriages do better when the spouses aren’t confined to quarters together, not to mention the kids being home all the time)
- Plummeting childhood vaccinations, putting children at elevated risk of serious childhood diseases
- Pain and suffering, and other complications, from millions of canceled or postponed “elective” surgeries and procedures, physicals, well visits, and other medical interactions
- Still more devastating lockdown-related consequences throughout the developing world
Of all lockdown-related debates, among the most contentious is reopening schools. Reopening schools in an ongoing pandemic is a frightening thought. But it may not be as frightening as it seems — and, as we’ve seen, there are other things to fear.
- School closures may lead to an “epic slide” in math and literacy skills — losses from which some kids may never recover.
- Like adults, children in lockdown are at elevated risk of anxiety and depression as well as obesity. For children who reply on subsidized school meals, closed schools also mean added food insecurity.
- Child abuse and neglect pose far greater danger to far more children than COVID. Like intimate-partner violence, child abuse and neglect are up during the lockdown — but calls about child abuse are down, because children in lockdown are even more isolated and more powerless than battered adults.
- It seems children are only half as likely, or even less, to get COVID as adults are — and when they do get it, the symptoms are usually mild.
- Children, of course, interact with adults who are at greater risk, particularly the elderly and those with preexisting conditions — but there are at least some indications that children may be less contagious than adults (or maybe not; questions remain). Of course, some children with preexisting conditions may be at greater risk; returning to school with everyone else may not be the right answer for them.
- By far our biggest failure in fighting COVID-19 is failing to protect the fewer than 1% of the population in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, where over half the deaths in the country have occurred. The 99% of the population outside nursing homes are statistically much safer than the raw death numbers would suggest.
Maintaining a full-on red alert on all fronts indefinitely is unsustainable and ultimately does more harm than good. At some point we have to talk about devoting resources and action where the need is greatest and easing efforts elsewhere.