The Boomers Will Sacrifice Themselves on the Beaches of COVID-19
There is nothing so irksome as a military metaphor—focused people “taking no prisoners,” angry people “going nuclear.” Yet when it comes to describing our fight against the coronavirus, such military comparisons seem excusable, even appropriate. As in war, the COVID-19 crisis has seeped into every part of society, the nation is gearing up for a united response, rich and poor alike are being asked to make sacrifices, our political leaders are calling for an end to partisanship, and, as we keep telling ourselves, “we’re all in this together.”
Then too, when it comes to war metaphors, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are marching in lockstep. “We are at war with a virus,” Biden intoned during the last Democratic primary debate. Several days later, Trump agreed: “The world is at war with a hidden enemy,” he tweeted. “We will win.”
But while everyone agrees that Americans are evincing a sense of national sacrifice, it’s patent nonsense to assume that sacrifice will be shared equally. That has never been true in any American war, and it’s not true now. And that remains the case despite the fact that the projected death rate from the war on the coronavirus is eerily similar to that which resulted from our country’s most recent global conflict. In fact, the estimated 3 percent mortality rate from the Battle of COVID-19 (the number is from the World Health Organization) is on a par with the percentage of Americans in uniform who died in the four years following December 7, 1941. 12.2 million served and just over 405,000 perished—that’s 2.99 percent.
But that number is misleading, because those who were drafted or volunteered (as the demographics from the conflict show) were primarily male, fit, rural, and young. Then, too, of the 12.2 million men who served in World War II, just 62 percent of them (7,564,000) served in combat—which puts the death rate for those who fought at over five percent. The percentages were higher if you served in the Army, with combat deaths of just under 24 percent.
Put simply, if you were a physically capable male born on a farm in Georgia in 1923 and served on the front lines, you drew the short straw, with a one in four chance of being killed. Worse yet, if you were fearless in combat, chosen for the Rangers (say) and came ashore at Omaha Beach, the straw you drew was microscopic. “Omaha Beach wasn’t a battle,” a senior military officer told me recently, “it was assisted suicide.”
Of course, the mortality rate suffered by Americans in World War II is modest when compared to their enemies (including those of all ages who died under the rain of bombs dropped on Tokyo and Dresden) and most of their allies. Two thirds of males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 were dead by 1945, with a 7.2 percent death rate for Soviet soldiers of all nationalities. And it wasn’t just the Germans who killed Soviets: the Red Army executed 217,000 of its own men for desertion, over half the number of total U.S. combat deaths throughout the entire war. (“It takes a brave man to be a coward in the Red Army,” Soviet Marshall Georgy Zhukov observed.)
So while no one is underestimating the potential human tragedy we are facing with the coronavirus (in which, by some estimates, many more Americans will die than in all of our wars combined), it seems unlikely to come anywhere close to the 26 million dead (counting civilians) of the Soviet Union in the four years from 1941 to 1945, or the approximately 75 million dead of all nationalities, as grim a reaping as any in human history.
Is this a war? A cursory study of COVID-19 fatalities suggests that the virus doesn’t kill the young at the same rate as the old, a reversal of the battlefield calculus. That’s the problem with war: it often (but not always) kills the most productive members of society. COVID-19 doesn’t. In Italy, which has one of the oldest populations in the world, nearly 90 percent of those who have died from the virus are over the age of 70.
Similarly, nations with much younger populations (like South Korea) have a much lower death rate—less than 1 percent. If the statistics remain constant, then the pandemic will be bad news for America’s 73 million Baby Boomers, the cohort born between 1946 and 1964. About 65 million Boomers could become infected by the virus, while 1,950,000 could die of it. If the Wuhan death rate of 5.8 percent is reached, that number could easily soar to over four million Boomers, and many more millions of all ages.
Or maybe not. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, it is more likely that the U.S. will suffer a mortality rate of about 2.3 percent. For the Boomers, that’s 851,000 fatalities. That’s not only double the number of Americans killed in World War II, a breathtakingly grim possibility, it outstrips the number of dead from the American Civil War, whose fatality stats have been recently revised upwards to more than 700,000. But even a 2.3 percent national mortality rate (a virus that will kill seven million Americans) would have been happily embraced by the major powers in 1946.
Which is to say, while the Battle of COVID-19 is not the war of national annihilation the world faced in the 1930s and ‘40s, the impact will be staggering. Of course, in all of this, there’s that single bright spot that is hinted at by the numbers from Italy and South Korea: the virus preys on the old.
People have noticed. Recently major grocery chains (Stop & Shop, Target, Safeway, Albertsons, and Whole Foods) have announced they are testing an approach that would protect “those most vulnerable to Covid-19” by allowing them special shopping hours at the beginning of each day. These new “senior hours” will make Boomers “more comfortable shopping our stores and helping to ensure they are able to get the items they need in a less crowded environment.”
We might be thankful that these chains want to protect our nation’s older citizens, but the announcement reads less like an exercise in altruism and more like the notice that many Boomers received years ago: “You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States….” For the goal, I suspect, is not to protect the old from the young, but to protect those least likely to contract the virus from those most likely to die from it. We might count our blessings: “In a world of arrogant adults who love money and kill children, the Almighty has seen fit to bare his arm and send a virus that will expose the deceitfulness of wealth and kills adults and spares children.”
This is as it should be. The Boomers are the first wave of COVID-19’s Omaha Beach, flattening the curve so that if and when a second wave of the virus hits, the young can go on living. We will have done our duty and sacrificed for our country. The honor will not be shared. We will have drawn the short straw and the older generation will finally, belatedly, pass from the scene. They will become the new “greatest generation”—allowing all those Gen-Z’ers and a large portion of their Millennial pals (the “virus rebels,” as they are now called) to do what they do best: enjoy beach week in Florida and whinge about how the tottering grey hairs of an older generation are clueless self-referencers focused only on themselves.