By Kevin Roche
There is a lot of talk about the pandemic resulting in a “new normal” in terms of how we live. I hope not. We had one of the best economic periods we have ever had. One that was producing more jobs for minorities and low-income persons and creating significant real-income growth for those groups. But we also had growing concerns about income inequality, loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse and excess screen time. The extreme reactions to the epidemic have exacerbated all those trends. Study after study shows that low-income and minority people are disproportionately losing jobs and suffering financial harm. Rates of mental illness and stress are leading to more drug and alcohol abuse. Isolating people at home and away from other family and friends, and from co-workers, is not helping their mental health. Asking people to spend more time at home, especially children, is only increasing screen time. We needed to encourage more real-life interaction, particularly among adolescents, as it was. We need now to return people to normal social life as quickly as possible, to avoid even greater rates of loneliness and stress induced mental illness, which often results in substance abuse.
And while we obviously have to protect our infirm elderly, this group too was already very isolated and suffered from significant rates of depression and loneliness. Further isolating them isn’t necessarily good for their mental health or quality of life. We should think about whether there is a way to protect them, while also giving them some freedom to make choices about their quality of life.
And as a society, do we really want everybody walking around indefinitely in masks and fearful of hugging and touching each other or enjoying the pleasure of a crowd of people? I don’t. What kind of life is that? If this were the bubonic plague, then we might consider that approach. For the vast majority of the population, this epidemic is no riskier than a ton of other activities or events, so why would we turn our social life upside down for that? One facet of this epidemic that has surprised me is what a fearful group a sizable segment of the population is. While we can blame irresponsible media sources and politicians, people should be more capable of thinking for themselves, gathering facts and making a rational assessment of risk, for themselves and for society as a whole. And if they do that, and more people obviously are, they will likely conclude that we can in fact return to normal without significant risk.