Call them the Pandemic Generation.
And why not? With Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z already taken, we need a whole new generational alphabet.
Like it or not, today’s kids will forever be changed by this New (Pandemic) Normal, just like grandma and grandpa carried the economic anxieties of the Great Depression through the rest of their lives. Even when they got money, the old frugality never loosened its grip.
“On the good side,” Dr. Irwin Redlener was saying at the end of another socially distanced week, “this pandemic generation of children will grow up a lot more adaptable to making changes in their lives and also more resilient. Children learn from these experiences. But they are also coming into a world with a whole new set of anxieties and unknowns.”
Redlener is one of America’s best-known pediatricians and public-health advocates. He’s gone from treating sick children to healing an unwell society. With his wife, Karen, and singer Paul Simon, he founded the Children’s Health Fund in 1987, sending mobile medical units into inner-city neighborhoods and hardscrabble hamlets. Since 2003, he has run Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, responding to Hurricane Katrina, superstorm Sandy and assorted cruelties at the border with Mexico. Lately, it’s been all COVID, all the time, including frequent national checkups on MSNBC. In times of high anxiety, Americans still crave the voice of a straight-talking pediatrician.
Dr. Irwin Redlener in 2015.
“We will see a lot more telecommuting and a lot more remote learning,” Redlener said. “There will be hand sanitizers everywhere, including hand-washing stations. The world will be much more focused on hygiene. These children will grow up with a very different focus on the prevention of infectious disease.”
So will all this plant new fears in the children or spark creative minds?
“We have to figure out how to parent during a pandemic,” Redlener said. “What are the educational trajectories when the schools are closed? What does it mean to have multigenerational families locked in a house together? What about friends? People are trying to figure all of it out now. With all the extra time, families are setting entirely new routines.”
This much is certain already, even as the first COVID wave is still crashing in: “These new rules could well be here for a year or more. They could return intermittently.” And like the TSA lines installed at the airport after 9/11, “some of these changes will be with us forever.”
The best hope, if we’re lucky and focused and the virus cooperates, is that these new challenges can help to solve old problems, Redlener said. “The climate crisis, sustainable biodiversity,” he said, ticking them off. “Looking at things more globally. Learning to act collaboratively. I am expecting big changes in the health-care system.”
Sixty million Americans already live in communities with too few doctors. For too many families without insurance, emergency rooms take the place of primary-care docs. “Shouldn’t emergency departments be gateways for sick people who may need to be hospitalized?” Redlener asked. “Can’t we find some other way to provide primary care? We have a chance to look at all of that.” Crises can force action.
As everyone looks for ways to end the current lockdowns, people young and old face issues large and small. And businesses are trying to adapt to the new realities. “You can’t just walk into a place of business now,” Redlener said. “You have to follow new rules, even in the retail stores that might be opening. They will limit the number of people who come in. Maintaining social distancing even out on the sidewalk. A lot of this will become the norm going forward.”
He’s wrestling with these questions in his own life and family, Redlener said.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to get my hair cut when I don’t know if the barber is positive or negative,” the doctor said. “Are you comfortable taking your family to a restaurant when you don’t know if the kitchen staff and the servers have been tested? Until we have very rapid point-of-care testing that is accurate, all these things are going to be very risky. We really can’t tell people it’s safe to go back to work.”
In the meantime, everyone’s just waiting around for the scientists. “They are developing medications to treat very sick people,” Redlener said. “Hopefully, that will control the fatality rate and keep more people from having to go to the hospital. Otherwise, we are waiting for the vaccine. Plenty of people will still be inside 18 months from now. We’ll be in limbo for a very long time, and everyone will have to adapt.”
He’s an optimist, Redlener said. Pediatricians almost have to be. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “but it’s a very long tunnel, I’m afraid.”
Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.