On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. There are now more than 125,000 confirmed cases in 118 countries, with more than 1,000 confirmed cases here in the United States (a number that’s likely to climb as testing efforts increase). The CDC has said the spread could continue into 2021. It’s officially getting Bad Out There. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said it’s probably going to get worse.
WHO data indicates that people over the age of 60 are at a greater risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19, with those over 80 experiencing the highest death rate. Which is why the CDC has recommended that people who are older (and, well, everyone) stay away from crowds and—here’s the big one—avoid nonessential travel.
…Not that you’d know it from the cruise selfies your aunt Linda and the rest of the U.S.’s 50-plus population have been posting. The WHO and CDC's advice doesn’t seem to have landed with America’s boomer and boomer-adjacent population, whose children say their folks either don’t believe that the disease isn’t as serious as it’s made out to be, or think that being in their 60s doesn’t really put them at risk. And not every insisted-upon trip is to a glamorous, once-in-a-lifetime destination. “My dad has a conference in Indiana and he still wants to go,” said Dan Samorodnitsky, who lives in Minneapolis. “He's risking his life for West Lafayette.”
Many of the nation’s boomers (and those slightly older) are committed to taking their planned vacations and going about life as normal, leading to a role reversal with their adult children, who are begging them to cancel trips and take other precautions. Twitter is full of stories from young people whose parents simply won’t consider postponing that getaway—ongoing pandemic be damned.
This is the first time many adults in their 20s and 30s have had to consciously grapple with their parents’ mortality, or with the fact that one’s aging parents can and will stubbornly ignore advice about what’s best for their health.
“My parents got off a cruise last Friday and got on another cruise,” said 32-year-old Elayne Juten, a Getty Images software engineer from Madison, Wisconsin, whose parents live about 45 minutes outside of Orlando. “[They] keep saying how the cruise was 'a steal' pricing wise… so, yeah.”
“My parents currently have a river cruise in Europe planned for next month unless it gets canceled,” said Misha McGettigan, a 22-year-old from the Detroit area. “I know having diabetes makes people more susceptible to complications from COVID-19 and my dad had diabetes, so that makes me worried. It's a river cruise through Germany, which has a lot of rising numbers in cases right now.”
“[My] grandparent that went through quadruple bypass two years ago and my grandmother that has problems with AFib [irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia] are headed to Pawleys Island with my mother and college-aged sisters,” said Knoxville’s Sam Broady. “They think they’re doing this just in time to beat it.”
What’s been shocking to their Gen X and Millennial children is that these are people who should really know better. Are these really the same adults who once fretted over their kids’ well-being? Who worried about stranger danger and MRSA? You’d think Samorodnitsky, for example—a senior editor at the science media group Massive Science—would be able to convince his parents to stay put for a while.
“[My job] carries less authority than you’d think,” he said. His mom and dad, both immigrants, simply don’t think anything could be as bad as the things they saw growing up in the Ukraine.
Ditto for McGettigan’s mom, who’s actually a nurse: “Her reasoning behind them still going is that the flu is way more dangerous and kills more people annually.” COVID-19 has so far killed 3.5 percent of the people it has infected, per the latest statistics. While this rate hasn't yet stabilized enough for scientists to understand exactly how deadly this new strain is, humans lack the "herd immunity" to it that we have for endemic flu strains, because it is new. This means COVID-19 has much greater potential to kill people as it works it way through the population, if it is allowed to.
And while the World Health Organization asserts that the overall mortality rate may work out to be lower, the number of people who die is also determined by "access to and quality of health care." As a demonstrative example, Italy's health care services have been overrun, forcing doctors to choose who gets a life-saving ventilator, because the virus has infected so many people so quickly with serious symptoms: Early estimates say each COVID-19 sufferer seems to be infecting two to three others, while that number is about 1.3 new people for each flu patient.
"They literally just popped some Airborne—that Vitamin C chewable thing—and said they'd be fine. I'm so legitimately worried for them both."
And if young people can’t get their parents to reconsider? Well, good luck to everyone else! “My in-laws—in their 60s, and one with a chronic cough—are adamant about flying home [to Philadelphia] from Florida at the end of the month, despite my wife's pleas not to,” said Evan Grossman, 43, of Philadelphia. “They were literally screaming at her today, telling her to stop watching the news because she's ‘driving everyone fucking nuts.’” Grossman said his in-laws have just been telling his wife to “calm down” when she’s expressed concern.
“I came home, and she was in tears,” he said. “She’s beyond frustrated, but in the end, what are you gonna do? They are grown adults, and they're going to do what they want.”
The story’s similar for 23-year-old Chris Durst, whose parents are from Long Island, but have a condo in Florida. They flew up to visit about a week ago, left this weekend, and are already planning on flying back up and down at the end of March.
“They literally just popped some Airborne—that Vitamin C chewable thing—and said they'd be fine. I'm so legitimately worried for them both,” Durst said. “My dad has respiratory issues already, and neither of them are particularly fit. Really blows my mind.”
As the rates of infection increase exponentially, what drives a grown person to ignore the advice of health officials and take that flight/cruise/weeklong bus trip around Florida with a bunch of other seniors? (No, seriously.) Is it ignorance of the facts at hand? A willful choice to ignore them?
“It's a bit of both,” Durst said. “They almost see this as a bad flu season rather than a global pandemic.”
“The numbers can be a bit misleading to a lot of people,” he added. “Especially to my parents, something like a 2–4 percent death rate doesn't sound that bad.”
“I think they know the risk but just… don’t care?” reasoned Juten, whose parents decided to take two cruises. “My takeaway is they're being careful because the only thing that puts them at higher risk is their age. But they're not taking into account that they have friends and live in a retirement community in Florida that this virus could easily kill.” She and her siblings have been pressuring her parents to cancel, to no avail.
“When they called to cancel, the cruise told them lots of people were calling and getting free upgrades instead."
Having failed to get their parents to take this seriously, concerned millennials are turning to one another, asking in group chats and on social media what it will take to get their parents to change their behavior. No one is quite sure." Brody speculated that more cases closer to home, or the governor declaring a state of emergency, might get through to his parents. (He added that his grandparents have stocked up on food and soap to minimize trips to the grocery store, and got three months worth of their prescription medications.)
Juten’s guess is that it would take someone her parents know personally getting seriously ill, “Which is awful.”
That’s not to say it isn’t worth at least trying to talk your folks out of their travel plans if you’re concerned. “Just yesterday [I] asked my parents why they were still going on their cruise this weekend; then they canceled it,” said Nick Blanks, 29, of Somerville, Massachusetts.
Deciding not to travel might put your parents in the minority, though: “When they called to cancel, the cruise told them lots of people were calling and getting free upgrades instead,” Blanks said.
“There's a whole lot of, ‘Well I won't get sick!’” Durst said of his folks, who insist on flying back and forth from Florida. “Also, ‘If I do, I'll only have mild symptoms!’ But somebody has to make up that mortality statistic.”
“Have you ever met a pack-a-day smoker who thought they'd get lung cancer?” asked Grossman, whose in-laws will soon be back in Philly. “Everyone is immune… until they aren't.”
One factor that could make a difference? The “not immune” group has grown to include Tom Hanks and Justin Trudeau's wife. The NBA has suspended its season and the Big Ten basketball tournament is off. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is closing, and bands like Pearl Jam and the Who have postponed their tours. As it becomes clearer that significant institutions are taking this seriously, parents might just start to relent.
Update: A previous version of this article stated that COVID-19 has a mortality rate of about 3.5 percent. While the virus is estimated to have killed 3.5 percent of the people it has infected so far, there is not yet enough data available to establish a mortality rate.
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