[COMMENTARY] We Created the Fourth Wave of the Virus During the First Wave
I am disappointed to see that the U.S. is facing a spike in new virus cases among people under 50, but I’m not surprised. By emphasizing the dangers to the elderly early on, public health messaging gave a tacit carte blanche to younger adults to continue life as usual.
In short, we allowed certain individuals developed an understanding that they were either invulnerable to the disease or not at risk at all. Such blind spots in our public message missed a critical opportunity to rally everyone together in a sense of shared responsibility against a formidable health crisis. Instead we unwittingly created a scenario that is now causing serious illness and death among the unvaccinated, as well as extending the pandemic for everyone.
At present, I serve on a statewide board in Oregon that is responsible for communicating to diverse communities regarding the vaccine rollout and Covid-19 education. I take this role seriously, because public health messaging will either make or break our way forward in the Covid-19 crisis. We cannot unintentionally delude others into thinking they are not connected to what is unfolding. We are all connected, regardless of age, gender, race, or where we reside on the globe.
Most importantly, we need to shift the narrative beyond who is expendable to one that centers all human life as being worthy of value.
Public communication at the onset of the crisis created a false dichotomy between the aged victims of disease and the youthful vigor and productivity of young adults. This new form of eugenics, a sort of narrative gerontocide, insidiously centered the elderly as the sad but inevitable collateral damage of a force majeure. Consider that the AARP found that, so far, 95% of deaths from COVID occurred in people over 50, although people under 50 comprised the majority of reported cases. I fear these numbers reflect a point of view guilelessly expressed by one of my young college students in September 2020. “Why is everyone so concerned about old people? They have already lived, why are we worried. We all have to die.”
By now, vaccines have dramatically reduced deaths among older adults; however, premature loosening of mask mandates, disregard for public hygiene rules, and calls for a return to “business as usual” have allowed new variants to take hold. Florida serves as a unique case in point, Governor Ron DeSantis’s proclamations against a standardized vaccine protocol under the guise of individual liberties undermines the health and safety of all Americans. He may very well place vulnerable lives in perilous proximity to further risks — again expendability politics will win out.
Perhaps we can learn from the very strange journey of the past year to better weather the current threat and survive future ones.
First, we should never frame a crisis in terms of who is expendable and who will be spared from harm. The invincibility of youth should never be our parting message.
Second, we should provide safe environments for all workers, beginning with serious discussions about new forms and ways of work, and national investment in public building and infrastructure health measures.
Third, communication during a crisis should be inclusive, multi-lingual and designed to educate rather than mandate. The U.S. has an opportunity to re-think and re-engage the ways in which we communicate around crisis to build solidarity and support.
At the end of the day, how we communicate during a global crisis is critical. It is not just about sharing vital information — it is about affirming every individuals’ worth and value.
About the Author:
Oregon State Public Voices Fellow Allison Davis-White Eyes, the director of community diversity relations at OSU.