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Lack of Leadership Worsened the Pandemic, Not Young People

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, politicians from both parties are scapegoating youth—just as they’ve done before with crime and drugs.

We have a system that works for the rich, instead of a public health system for all Americans that readily anticipates and controls new pathogens through testing, contact tracing, and quarantine.  (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

 We have a system that works for the rich, instead of a public health system for all Americans that readily anticipates and controls new pathogens through testing, contact tracing, and quarantine.  (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic that erupted in March and resurged since June has shifted from Democratic to Republican states with a vengeance.

Before May 1, a resident of a Democratic state was 2.3 times as likely to be diagnosed with coronavirus than a resident of a Republican state. By August, the pattern has reversed: Republican-state residents were 1.8 times as likely to be diagnosed as their Democratic counterparts.

Is this dramatic shift finally going to create a national resolve among Republican leaders to stop characterizing the pandemic as Democrats’ problem and federal initiatives to ameliorate its effects as a “blue state bailout”?

That appears unlikely. Republicans remain opposed to effective public health and economic measures, such as mandating mask-wearing and extending stimulus checks, on both national and state bases. Instead, as cases rose sharply, a bipartisan “us versus them” movement and media narrative turned to blaming “young people.”

Coronavirus Hits Conservative States

Two governors illustrate the problem. When the coronavirus made its initial appearance in March, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom forcibly shut down large areas of California to effectively slow the disease spread. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis implemented only weak public health measures.

Then, in May, both governors—like most state and local leaders, under pressure from the Trump administration and right-wing protesters—relaxed public health restrictions. Coronavirus infections erupted in both states, rising 12-fold in California and 16-fold in Florida over the past three months.

Scapegoating the Young

Now, Newsom and DeSantis share rare agreement on one point. “Selfish…young people” who “think they are invincible” are largely responsible for coronavirus’s renewed spread, Newsom declared. DeSantis blamed young people’s uncontrollable “partying” for Florida’s infection outbreak (even though he notoriously refused to close beaches before Spring Break week in March).

Newsom’s popular stereotype of young people, like racial prejudice, is unfounded. Studies consistently show young people harbor no more delusions of invincibility than older people. Young people’s risks for certain behaviors derive from their much higher rates of poverty, not innate recklessness.

“I see plenty of irresponsibility going on across the age spectrum as we have opened up,” Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, chair of the University of California, San Francisco, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, told the Mercury News. “I don’t think it’s helpful to demonize one group or another.”

In fact, the most recent Gallup survey found 76% of 18- to 34-year-olds reported wearing face masks in public “always” or “very often” to curb the virus’s spread, compared to 71% of those age 55 and older and 69% of 35- to 54-year-olds. The proportions that “rarely” or “never” wear masks in public were 14% for ages 18 to 34, 17% for ages 55 and older, and 19% for ages 35 to 54 (the 41-year-old DeSantis’ and 52-year-old Newsom’s demographic).

Increased infections among the young more likely result from leaders’ decisions to prematurely reopen businesses and public life, along with increased testing of younger populations with lesser symptoms, Bibbins-Domingo noted. Young people, like non-White minorities, dominate occupations whose workers are more exposed to infection and compelled by economic circumstances to return to work. Two-thirds of restaurant workers, half of emergency paramedics and health assistants, and nearly half of grocery workers are 34 or younger, the Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

That reality is buttressed by coronavirus statistics no one mentions. In California, 85% of coronavirus infections in ages 18 to 34, and 91% of those under 18, are in people of color. Latinx people in particular have been hard hit. Newsom, DeSantis, and other authorities are dodging their own culpability for reopening too early by indulging in easy scapegoating.

Leadership Is Out of Ideas

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American leaders resorting to scapegoating to absolve bad policies is a major reason the United States suffers such outsized crises. Some pessimism about the course of this one is warranted.

Of the 24 most affluent nations with modern health registries,* the United States has 32% of their total population. Yet, among those nations, Americans suffer five-sixths of all gun deaths, 60% of drug abuse deaths, and 71% (and rising) of coronavirus cases. The U.S. holds nearly 80% of incarcerated people among those advanced nations. Americans’ obesity levels are higher than found in any wealthy nation.

Things are getting worse. Forecasts predict a U.S. record 72,000 drug abuse deaths for 2019, 41,000 gun killings, and 50,000 suicides. And now the estimated number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. is expected to near 300,000 by the end of the year. Those in power in national or local government, with a few exceptions, are not proposing responses commensurate with our crises.

Americans refuse to learn from successes in other nations, or even from our own homegrown solutions. For example, gun deaths and homicide arrests among New York City and Los Angeles teenagers declined by 90% from 1990 to 2019; youth crime nationwide declined 85%; and arrests of those under age 13 dropped 95%.

Unfortunately, American interests across the spectrum, though ever-ready to trumpet crises, remain uninterested in analyzing success. The main hope at present is that local interests will innovate new ideas and force a broader awareness upon the rest of us.

Stop Denigrating the Young and Learn From Them

Experts, including those who recognize that social disadvantages foster higher risks among minorities, still pathologize young people as dangerous and endangered because of reckless personal misbehaviors. This is a terrible mistake.

America’s teenagers, 48% of whom are of color, suffer poverty levels exceeding 20%, much higher than older age groups. Poverty correlates with higher levels of exposure to violence, crime, pollution, disease, and stress, and also to poorer health care.

Yet teenagers are underrepresented in crime statistics. Among Americans 15 to 64, teenagers ages 15 to 19 (making up 10% of that group) account for just 9% of gun deaths, 7% of coronavirus cases, 6% of suicides and suicide-indicated deaths, and 5% of criminal arrests, and fewer than 1% of drug and alcohol overdose deaths. Only for homicides, which overwhelmingly victimize persons of color, do teenagers’ risks match those of older adults.

Why are older teenagers, the most economically disadvantaged and diverse population other than children, actually less inclined to most serious risks than are adults—especially richer and more advantaged middle-aged adults? Why have risks for teenagers risen less rapidly, or actually declined in key categories, while in older adults they have gotten worse?

Amid national political and health crises, we are seeing a generational revolution. Young people are not conforming to crude stereotypes, social conditions, or expectations. They are forging new behaviors appropriate to their global diversity and the challenges forced on them by their elders.

We don’t yet know why this is or how it came about because we don’t ask. When adult Americans stop prioritizing money, ideology, self-superiority, and self-interest, we may start to find some surprising answers.

Mike Males

Mike Males

Mike Males is the senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

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