In their eagerness to “do something” and appear to be taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens alike have stubbornly refused to admit to any costs or tradeoffs resulting from the government’s policy response to the virus. As all thinking people know, every policy has a downside, and sensible governing should involve weighing those downsides carefully against any potential or actual benefits. But in the case of lockdowns, we’re expected to believe that if everyone will just do as they’re told, everything will be fine, and that there’s no other option besides that which has been aggressively pursued by mayors and governors across the nation.
But these downsides do exist, and they can be extremely serious, as I recently learned through personal experience.
Recognizing the limits of anecdotes, I’d nevertheless like to share a story from my own life to illustrate a few of the ways in which sweeping, reflexive lockdowns can negatively impact real people.
Starting late last year, my mother began experiencing pain in her right hip. It was mild at first, and went away a few times before coming back, so naturally she was happy to dismiss it as a minor injury such as a pulled muscle or a little bit of arthritis. My mother is in her mid-sixties and has been in good health for most of her life, so no one really expected anything serious. By March, however, the pain intensified to the point where she could no longer walk. Various doctors were consulted, all of whom diagnosed the problem as orthopedic in nature. They took x-rays, which appeared to reveal nothing wrong, but because of the onset of the coronavirus, MRIs and CT scans were unavailable, being deemed “non-essential” for anyone except coronavirus patients.
My mother then proceeded to consult a parade of physical therapists, chiropractors, orthopedic specialists, and alternative medicine practitioners, each of which assured her they could fix the problem before definitively failing to do so. Meanwhile, her pain was getting worse and she was growing weak. She lost thirty pounds, developed a cough, and starting sleeping for many hours a day. She was prescribed Oxycontin for her pain, but the primary effect of the drug was extreme disorientation and confusion. When I spoke to my mother on the phone, half the time she didn’t know where she was or what was going on. It was July before she and my father were finally able to arrange for an MRI, as by now it was obvious that something was seriously wrong.
What the scans revealed was not good news. The doctors found lung cancer which had metastasized to the pelvis, where a large tumor had eaten away most of the bone there, accounting for her pain and inability to walk. Additionally, the cancer was in her blood and had spread to the brain where multiple tumors had begun to develop. It should be noted that my mother has never smoked a day in her life, and this particular form of lung cancer is a rare one which, in such an advanced state, would have been a death sentence as little as three years ago.
Fortunately, medical technology has advanced a lot in a short amount of time. The doctors explained that a drug was available that could target the cancer cells directly, attacking them much like chemotherapy without all the unpleasant side effects on healthy tissue. Those pills, combined with radiation therapy for the pelvis, should be able to shrink the tumors. It was not a cure, but if all went as expected, it should save her life and relieve most of the pain.
On the day she got her first pills from the pharmacist, she was unable to catch her breath and, nearly collapsing from lack of oxygen, had to be rushed to the hospital. The lung cancer had caused blood clots to form in her lungs, which were blocking the transmission of oxygen to the blood. She very nearly died that night, and while I immediately hopped a flight from Washington, DC to my family’s home in Georgia, I feared I would be too late.
Here again, the COVID-19 response reared its ugly head.
The hospital where my mother was kept would not allow visitors, not even close family members for short periods of time. My father couldn’t see his wife as she struggled to breathe. My sister and I couldn’t see our mother in her long hours of fear and confusion. All of us were paralyzed with the possibility that we might not get the chance to say goodbye.
Fortunately, she did survive the night and gradually stabilized, but we were still not able to see her, and the medicine she had been taking meant that she was in no shape to advocate for herself in the absence of family. One night she called us from the hospital, convinced that she had been kidnapped. Another night, she ripped the IV drip from her arm in confusion, resulting in a nasty bruise that took weeks to heal. I want to emphasize that my mother does not have any problems with dementia. She has always been the sharpest member of our family, and the confusion she was experiencing was solely the result of the opioids, which she had the presence of mind to start refusing when they were offered to her. Throughout it all, she had no one by her side to make sure she was getting the best care or to make tough decisions on her behalf. We were forbidden from going inside.
I’m pleased to say that, in my case anyway, this story has a happy ending. No longer taking the Oxycontin, my mother’s mental faculties returned, the clots in her lungs began to dissolve with the help of blood thinners, and the cancer pills and radiation began to do their work. The bone loss in her pelvis means that she is still confined to a wheelchair, and will be for some time, at least until she recovers sufficiently to pursue reconstructive surgery. But her prospects are improving daily, and we all feel very lucky.
In general, I am extremely grateful to the hardworking doctors who saved my mother’s life. But the COVID-19 policy kept her in the hospital, isolated from her loved ones, for a total of five days, during which time we could easily have lost her. If not for the government’s response to COVID-19, an MRI could have revealed the cancer months earlier and much suffering, not to mention the near miss and hospital stay, could have been avoided.
We got lucky this time, but I can’t help but think of all the families who may not be so fortunate. How many will die because of unavailable tests that fatally delay diagnoses? How many will perish alone in hospital beds while their loved ones are legally prevented from holding their hands and saying their goodbyes? How many patients will lack any meaningful form of medical advocacy as they are forced to navigate hospital procedure while alone and incapacitated? The lives lost and emotional trauma that result from these policies will probably never be known. And while the stories of COVID-19 patients are highlighted on the news every day, the patients who die as a result of the lockdowns themselves are unlikely to get a fair hearing.
I tell this story, not to minimize the dangers of the coronavirus or the suffering of those afflicted with it, but simply to point out that the government’s aggressive response has not been costless. There are some who are inclined to make flippant comments about how any opposition—indeed, any balanced discussion—of the pandemic response must only come from selfish people who value “money over lives.” It is my hope that sharing my family’s experience will cause such people to think twice before dismissing our concerns. It has never been a matter of money versus lives. It’s lives versus lives, and because of the hubris of politicians who think they know what’s best for hundreds of millions of Americans, my mother nearly lost hers.