“Better be safe than sorry.” I have never believed that.
I have lived my first 65 years often turning a blind eye to risk. I lived in China for eight years, enduring some of the worst industrial pollution on earth, despite having asthma. I risked damaging the lungs of my then small children by raising them in a place where their school often locked them in air-purified classrooms to protect them from the smog.
Before that, I lived for 20 years in Africa, refusing to boil water in areas where it needed boiling, eating bushmeat at roadside stalls — not to mention the escapades that I got up to as a young woman in the pre-Aids era.
But now, as I peer over the precipice into life as a senior citizen, coronavirus has finally introduced me to the concept of risk. Part of it is the whole “60 is the new 80” paradigm that the pandemic has forced on us — but most of it is that, whether I like it or not, I fit squarely in the category of “at risk” for severe illness or death if I catch Covid-19.
I have diabetes, asthma and am finishing my 65th year. I don’t live in a nursing home, a jail, a monastery or a convent (as does one close friend with Covid-19), but according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I still qualify as high risk because of my underlying conditions and age.
So what do I — and people like me, I am far from alone — do now that the world is reopening without us? I’ve got some big decisions to make in the next few days. My youngest child is moving back to our flat outside Chicago after a month living elsewhere: does one of us need to be locked in the bedroom? Do I have to eat on the balcony for two weeks?
There is no shortage of people, not least President Donald Trump, telling me that all this is simple: vulnerable people should just stay home. But what if they live with other people? What if those people have jobs? And what about our dogs? Our two old mutts are overdue for a rabies shot because the vet was only seeing emergencies. Is it safe for me to take them in now? Can my kids go to the dentist, and then come home to live at close quarters with me?
I asked several medical experts these questions, and they all offered versions of “we haven’t got a clue”. Robert Gabbay, incoming chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, was the most helpful: “Individuals with diabetes are all in the higher-risk category but even within that category, those who are older and with co-morbidities are at more risk — and control of blood glucose seems to matter.
“You are probably somewhere in the middle” of the high-risk category, he decided. My diabetes is well controlled and I don’t have many other illnesses. “But your age is a factor,” he added. Up to now, I’ve thought I was in the “60 is the new 40 crowd”: now I know there is no such crowd.
The head of the Illinois Department of Public Health underlined this at the weekend when she gave her personal list of Covid dos and don’ts, including don’t visit a parent who is over 65 with pre-existing conditions for at least a year, or until there is a cure. Dr Ngozi Ezike also said she would not attend a wedding or a dinner party for a year and would avoid indoor restaurants for three months to a year — despite the fact that Chicago’s indoor restaurants reopen on Friday.
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I turned to the CDC, which initially said it would issue new guidance for “at risk” people last week, but didn’t. This would be the same CDC that I trusted when it said not to wear a mask — though 1.3 billion people in China were masking up. Today China, which is 100 times larger by population than my home state of Illinois, has less than three-quarters as many total pandemic deaths. (Yes, I know China has been accused of undercounting cases, but so has the US.) Masks aren’t the only reason; but they are enough of a reason to erode my trust in what the CDC thinks I should do now.
It doesn’t help that the CDC website lists “moderate to severe asthma” as one of the primary risk factors for poor coronavirus outcomes — while the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology says “there are no published data to support this determination”, adding that there is “no evidence” that those with asthma are more at risk. Who’s right?
I need to know: this weekend is the one-year anniversary of the death of my eldest sibling. I’ve chosen not to make the trip to visit his grave in Michigan. Next month, I turn 65, and I want to spend that day with my 89-year-old father: should we rent a camper van, so we don’t infect his household? I thought about a porta potty for the journey, since public toilets are apparently a coronavirus hotspot. When I started searching for “female urination devices” online, I knew it was time to ditch this new “better safe than sorry” persona I’ve assumed under lockdown.
Maybe it’s time to remind myself of a fact that I once knew: that life is a risky business, and there is only so much I can do about that. I’ll die when it’s my time — probably not a day before or after, coronavirus or no coronavirus.
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