The number of COVID-19 cases is once again rising across Europe. And, once again, policymakers are seeking to limit the virus’ spread with increasingly restrictive measures. In light of their immense social and economic impact, E&M‘s Jurek Wötzel thinks through the generational dimension of pandemic politics. 

As bars, restaurants, theatres, concert houses and gyms are closing all over Europe again because of the imminent threat of sharp spikes in coronavirus infections, I cannot help but think that the new limits to public life are nothing but a sign of helplessness. Governments are once again choosing the harshest of measures, attached to most economic risk, to deal with a situation that no one can call new anymore. The onset of the pandemic in the beginning of the year surely justified taking emergency measures, yet, 9 months into virus and chill it signals full-on defeat to do exactly the same again. 

European leaders are pre-emptively creating the typical TINA-narrative (‘there is no alternative’) around coronavirus politics and emotionally appealing to our sentiments of solidarity and fear, effectively stifling debate as to what could be done better, or what has been done wrong in the past. The blame for skyrocketing infections is placed on those who couldn’t behave themselves, on those who didn’t listen during summer, when measures came in the form of advice not in the form of regulation. Religiously we keep on seeking absolution from the virus by restraining ourselves, and most of all: our fellow citizens.

The very process of defining what is an emergency is a fundamentally political one.

But any emergency situation remains a political situation and is subject to competing problem definition frames that inform the outcome of the policy process. To go even further, the very process of defining what really is an emergency is a fundamentally political one. So we must with all force reject any arguments presenting the European reactions to the latest wave of infections as the only way to go ahead. 

We must continue to measure the value of policy by traditional normative standards: does the policy distribute benefits and burdens fairly? Does it violate basic rights, and if so, justifiably? Is it effective at achieving the goal it’s intended to achieve? Are the resources used proportional to the gravity of the problem? Are better alternatives known and applicable? 

Regarding benefits and burdens, current coronavirus policies are an absolute disaster. For different groups in society in different ways. One of the starkest conflicts is a generational one – between Millenials and Gen Z on the one hand, baby boomers and Gen X on the other. Let’s be honest: for young people, this has been the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals, maybe ever. 

It is especially young people that suffer from lockdown policies: they are the ones that are the most active socially, and the most mobile. To young adults and adolescents, bars, parties and cultural activities are an absolutely essential part of life. Something that is vital for personal development, a crucial counterweight to the anxieties of growing up. For teenagers, spending time outside with friends is an important hideout from problems at home or at school, and for children of all ages, spending time doing sports in groups is necessary for a healthy balance of mental and physical activity. 

Women upholding sign reading 'small business fighting for survival'
Many small businesses have been impacted by public health emergency as well as the resulting restrictions | Gene Gallin | Unsplash licence

What’s more, youth unemployment, which has been a problem for years in Europe, particularly in the southern countries, is skyrocketing due to economic decline. Greece witnessed an increase in youth unemployment from 31.7% in March to 39.3% in June, while the numbers rose from 33.9 to 41.7% in Spain. Even in economically stronger countries such as the UK, unemployment among economically active 18-29-year olds is set to increase to 17% by the end of 2020. The massive bailouts that governments have put in place are remedying some of the damage done, yet not enough, and are additionally putting a heavy burden on public finance for decades to come. A burden that will have to be dealt with by younger generations. 

Presumably for reasons of economic anxiety and lack of possibilities for stress relief, lockdown policies present a serious threat to the mental health of everyone, but most of all young people. A recent study published in the medical journal “The Lancet” showed that, in the UK, the proportion of people that reported clinically relevant distress rose from 18.9% in 2018-19 to 27.3% in April 2020, among 18-24-year olds, however, it rose from 24.5% to 36.7%. For women aged 18-24, it rose to as much as 44%. This is a dangerous development when in many societies, suicide already is an important cause of death among younger generations. In the UK for instance, it is even the leading cause of death among 5-19-year olds. 

At the same time, young people themselves are incredibly unlikely to suffer serious consequences from a coronavirus infection. As of 27th October, 46 of the 10,098 coronavirus deaths in Germany are attributed to people below the age of 40. The latest WHO-embraced Stanford meta-study estimated an infection fatality rate of 0,05% for people below the age of 70, which is likely to be much lower still among people below the age of 40. And the newest IFR-by-age-estimate by scholars of Harvard and Dartmouth College calculates an IFR of 0.002% for children at the age of 10 and 0.01% for young adults aged 25.

But what about the long-COVID syndrome? A Kings College-study on the prevalence of long-COVID by age, physical state and symptom severity in acute state reports that 2.3% of all people tested positive for coronavirus (this number is not to be confused with the number of total infections) experience symptoms for 12 weeks or longer. Age was a significant predictor for long COVID, with 9,9% of 18-49-year olds reporting symptoms 4 weeks after testing positive, and 21,9% of those older than 50. Hence, the share of those with symptoms at the 12-week stage may also be significantly lower than the overall 2.3% among people younger than 50. 

The benefit to be obtained from risk reduction is thus relatively low for young people, while the costs they incur from limits to social and economic life are disproportionately high.

The benefit to be obtained from risk reduction is thus relatively low for young people, while the costs they incur from limits to social and economic life are disproportionately high. It is a crucial shortcoming of lockdown policies not to differentiate measures for people of different age groups. 

By no means should younger people be able to live the life they used to live under non-pandemic circumstances, but governments would do well to work on concepts that allow those at low risk of suffering severe consequences from a coronavirus infection more liberties. Especially at a time when acceptance for lockdown measures is dropping sharply and unrest is starting to shake the streets of major European cities, governments must make sure that policies distribute benefits and burdens fairly to regain popular motivation and uphold solidarity. If one-size-fits-all measures continue to dominate policy-making in Europe, we admit that we really have learnt nothing at all. 

Cover photo: Edwin Hooper, Unsplash licence

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