(This is perhaps more of a pastoral observation than a reflection – something for parents of young people in particular to consider in our on-going response to the coronavirus.)
When I first studied the subject of death and dying it was back in 1976 as part of my pastoral experience as a Jesuit novice working with families attending a cancer treatment centre in Seattle. At the time there was almost nothing published on that subject, the one exception being Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ pioneering work On Death & Dying. Ten years later I was once again studying the subject as part of my university studies in Florida and was amazed to hear a student in the class – a girl in her early twenties – admit that she had never attended a funeral. As amazing as it was to me that someone could reach that age and never have been to a funeral, it wasn’t a complete surprise as one thing that was often mentioned in American sources was the extent to which people – and especially young people – were cocooned from the reality of aging and death. From a time when most people typically grew old and died at home, many were now living in specially developed retirement communities for the elderly and were mostly cared for in hospital and hospice settings when that became necessary. Consequently young people had far less experience of terminal illness and death (reference that student) than might once have been the case, and I would suggest that the same is becoming increasingly true in this country also.
It is perhaps understandable that for those of us of, shall we say, “a certain age” the reality of death is never too far away – whether our awareness of our own mortality or how often we find ourselves attending the funerals of family members and friends. It’s hard to remember the glorious days of our youth when we thought we would live for ever.
There is a feeling of eternity in youth which makes amends for everything. Death, old age, are words without a meaning, a dream, a fiction, with which we have nothing to do. Others may have undergone them, but we bear a charmed life which laughs to scorn all such idle fancies.
Of course the immortality of youth is still alive and well and is the explanation I would offer for the care-less-ness (and I deliberately hyphenate that word) and total disregard that we see young people continuing to demonstrate in the face of the coronavirus.
As the pandemic took hold the impression was given that it was an “old person’s disease” with those of us over the age of 70 (and those with underlying health problems) being said to be at the greatest risk and told to take particular precautions. This immediately allowed young people to consider it as something they didn’t need to be overly concerned about in terms of the risk to themselves contracting the virus. This was further confirmed by the recommended practice of hand-washing and gelling, and later also of social distancing, as ways of guarding against being infected, without an equal emphasis being placed on guarding against infecting others. If young people were not considered to be an at-risk group, then perhaps they felt able to disregard the recommended safeguards and so is this why we have seen time and again, in all kinds of public situations, young people mixing and mingling as if they are immune to catching or carrying the virus? – and even if they did, the symptoms would be mild in their case. I don’t think the point was emphasised enough, if at all, that even if they hadn’t developed symptoms they could still be unknowingly carrying the virus and could therefore infect other people with whom they come into contact – and not just their peers but family members as well, especially grandparents whose lives, being older people, could be particularly at risk as a result.
Throughout the lockdown, but especially since it began to be eased, we will have seen young people walking along the street as closely gathered as ever, including boys and girls hand-in-hand or with their arms around each other. And as if that wasn’t bad enough illegal raves and parties, indoors and out, continue to be defiantly organised. Is it simply ignorance of the true scale of the disease? Do they honestly not understand how serious the pandemic is? Do they never listen to anything on the news or on their smart phones? Do their parents not ask them where they are going and who they will be with and lecture them in no uncertain terms (if that’s what it takes) about social distancing and why? Of course, if you think you are going to live for ever then taking risks isn’t a problem, except the risk at the moment is also of infecting other people – possibly fatally.
Maybe it all comes down to the fact that, as I began by saying, young people rarely experience the reality of death and especially people dying in large numbers. Even when natural disasters happen, they always seem to happen to other people elsewhere. For that reason when the deaths of family members or friends do occur, it comes as quite a shock because they’re not prepared for it. Even more rarely do they consider their own death which they expect to be a long way off yet – “three score and ten” at least – not life expectancy but life expectation – and so perhaps the coronavirus can seem to them to be a lot of fuss about nothing.
And yet surely no one can ignore the magnitude of the threat posed by it. As I write (mid-August) the virus has already infected twenty-two million people worldwide: that’s the equivalent of a third of the population of the UK or 2½ times the population of London. Also worldwide over three-quarters of a million people have died: that’s 8½ times the number of people in Wembley stadium on Cup Final day if you can picture that.
So why do we see not just young people, but so many of all ages blatantly ignoring the rules put in place to safeguard us all? Why do they insist on the “right” (as they see it) to gather socially, regardless? It’s not about their rights and freedoms but other people’s rights and lives. Why are many still walking round in public places without a face mask, possibly unknowingly infecting others even if they don’t care about becoming infected themselves? Why is it that such a simple safeguarding measure is “a bridge too far” for them? Twenty-two million people have been infected and over three-quarters of a million (and counting) have died. What more needs to be said?
And yet the other day I saw two elderly ladies walking along side by side, no social distancing, no face masks, then stop and have a conversation directly into each other’s faces, then they walked all of six feet, stopped, turned and talked into one another’s faces yet again. So what was their excuse I wonder? It certainly wasn’t the immortality of youth! And if older people think they are above the law and beyond the reach of the virus, little wonder, therefore, that young people are behaving the way they are, possibly following the bad example of their elders by ignoring the rules and taking risks not only with their own health but also the health of others.
Why can’t people do as they are told if only out of consideration for others? As a society have we become so self-centred that we are even willingly to put other people’s lives at risk for the sake of “me, myself, and I”? And if hefty fines aren’t enough of a deterrent, I sometimes wonder if these people should be taken to a Covid ward in a hospital and made to watch patients fighting for their lives, and medical and nursing staff selflessly fighting even harder to save them even at the risk of their own health. Might that hit home?
Young people – and all of us for that matter – are going to become a whole lot more familiar with the reality of death and of attending funerals if we don’t start playing our part in trying to prevent this virus from spreading. One thing is for sure: ignoring it or treating it as if it’s no more serious than the common cold isn’t going to do it.
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 (published in 1969)
 (from On the Feeling of Immortality in Youth by English essayist and philosopher William Hazlitt (1778-1830))