The coronavirus is scary to millennials because it shows us how old our parents are

Millennials fear coronavirus — for the health of their parents. ADRIANO MACHADO/Reuters
  • The coronavirus is scaring many millennials not because of our health, but because of our parents’ health.
  • In a March 9 media briefing, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) addressed safety measures for people who are at risk of getting sick from the coronavirus. People over 60 and those with preexisting health conditions are at higher risk.
  • It’s forcing many millennials to reckon with the fact that their parents are ageing and could be considered at-risk individuals.
  • You may not feel or get sick from coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean you’re not contributing to its spread.
  • We can unknowingly pass coronavirus on, so it’s important to practice social distancing to keep our loved ones safe.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Thursday, my phone lit up with a text message from my mum: “I had to get my hair done today and go to the bank.”

It shouldn’t have been a frightening text, but it was.

“!!!” I typed back, following up with a barrage of separate messages. “You’re over 60. Banks are dirty places. Why are you getting a haircut right now. What if you get sick.”

Normally, bank trips and a hair appointment are just another day of my mum’s retirement. But the text came days after a Centres for Disease Control and Prevention media briefing advised older people to consider stocking up on food and avoid venturing outside as the coronavirus spreads. By “older,” the CDC meant people who are 60 years or older, as well as those with underlying health risks.

My mum, a 62-year-old retiree with asthma who lives in Florida, is part of the at-risk group the CDC was referring to. That’s why her seemingly ordinary text that day scared me, and that’s why, as we find ourselves in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, her day of errands is anything but ordinary in my eyes.

Based on conversations I’ve had with friends and coworkers,I’m not the only young person who feels this way. Last week, one of our editors asked our team – a group of 20- and 30-somethings – how we were feeling about the coronavirus news. Were we scared? Nervous? Overwhelmed?

The consensus was clear: We’re not that afraid for ourselves, but we are afraid for our parents and grandparents.

People over 60 are at higher risk for coronavirus

The oldest millennials turn 39 this year, while the youngest turn 24. What the CDC’s announcement is forcing many of us to confront is that our parents – many of whom are Gen X and baby boomers – are ageing, too. In 2020, Gen X turns ages 40 to 55. Baby boomers turn ages 56 to 74.

That means that many of our parents fall into the high-risk category for coronavirus: People over 60 are at greater risk of becoming ill than younger folks who don’t have underlying health conditions (those who do have preexisting conditions are also at higher risk). Coronavirus risk increases with age, making people in their 80s and 90s – for many of us, our grandparents – at the highest risk.

Coronavirus causes the disease COVID-19, which has a death rate highest among elderly groups. The trend is evident in the chart below, based on a report from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

Covid 19 death rate by age chart
The study this data comes from did not report any deaths in children younger than 10, who represented less than 1% of the patients studied. Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

If you’re younger than age 50, the death rate is less than 1%. But the death rate rises the further you age past 50. A report by the South Korean Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found a similar trend, but with lower death rates.

Covid 19 death rate by age south korea 3 11 20

The risk of death also increases if you have chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, per the Chinese Centre report. While preexisting conditions can afflict young people, they’re more common among older people, particularly the preexisting condition with the highest death rate: heart disease.

Covid 19 preexisiting health problems chart v2
Those with heart disease and diabetes see the highest death rate. Ruobing Su/Business Insider

Importantly, as Anna Medaris Miller previously reported for Business Insider, 60 is not a cutoff that separates those at risk from those not at risk. Instead, as Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Centre for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, noted in the March 9 briefing, risk increases with age.

We can pass coronavirus on without knowing it

The low death rates for younger people have given some younger generations a sense of confidence. Consider the 20-somethings who are buying cheap flights amid coronavirus fears.

“I feel like if the coronavirus would get even more serious and like wipe out a large amount of people, I might as well be somewhere having fun,” Ashley Henkel, a 20-year-old who recently booked flights to Vancouver, New York City, and Portland, Oregon, for the summer told Ben Kesslen for NBC.

But just because we might feel the odds are in our favour doesn’t mean that’s the case for the people we interact with. As a senior doctor for a major European hospital wrote in a Newsweek opinion piece geared towards young people, “Odds are, you might catch coronavirus and might not even get symptoms. Great. Good for you. Very bad for everyone else, from your own grandparents to the random older person who got on the subway train a stop or two after you got off.”

Italy coronavirus
There have been reported cases of passing on coronavirus without exhibiting symptoms. Reuters

Coronavirus symptoms can appear within 11.5 days, according to a new study. And there have been reports of asymptomatic infection with COVID-19, according to the CDC, meaning you could have COVID-19 without exhibiting symptoms. Symptomatic or asymptomatic, you can unknowingly pass coronavirus on to someone else.

Health experts recommend practicing social distancing to help keep loved ones safe

Business Insider has mandated a work from home policy for at least two weeks. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already tiring of hacking away at my keyboard nine hours a day inside the tiny box that New York City likes to call an apartment. I long for mental and physical space and have considered flying home to Florida where that space exists, but I don’t want to risk unknowingly passing coronavirus on to my mum.

So I’m staying put.

These kinds of social distancing techniques are key preventative measures to keep the outbreak from overwhelming the US healthcare system, reported Business Insider’s Lydia Ramsey. It’s why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Sunday that all bars and restaurants will be limited to take-out only; why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings of 500 people or more; why major events, from sporting games to conferences, have been cancelled; and why many workplaces and schools are closing.

There are other steps we can take to protect ourselves and the people around us. Companies around the world are asking their employees to work from home. Health experts suggest restricting non-essential beauty appointments, avoiding crowds, weighing a variety of factors before travelling, staying home if we’re sick, washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, and disinfecting touched surfaces on a daily basis.

There’s no denying that all of this is harder than it sounds. I’m 28, feeling cooped up, and already longing for my social life, but the coronavirus isn’t just about my health. It’s also about others’ – my parents’ and your parents’ included.