Covid-19 Taught Me to Stay Home When I’m Sick

As recovery from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion is running a series of columns looking at crisis-inspired innovations that promise better living over the long run — from more resilient economies, cleaner cities and healthier offices to five-star meal kits and less unnecessary business travel.

The pandemic has taught people to stay home when they’re sick. That’s a lesson to keep living by.

Covid-19 has most certainly not been “just a bad flu,” as the wishful thinkers have insisted since the pandemic began affecting daily life in March 2020. But social distancing to slow the spread of the virus has lessened the severity of seasonal flu.

As far as I know, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not have complete data on the flu season that is ending this spring, and last year’s data were affected by the pandemic. But the year before — the 2018-2019 season — saw 36 million people develop flu symptoms, resulting in nearly half a million hospitalizations and 34,000 deaths. During the previous year, 810,000 people went to the hospital for the flu, and 61,000 died. 

Still, the tough-it-out American spirit pushed people to suck it up and go to work with a seasonal illness, including the flu. I was one of them. Unless I was bedridden, you would find me at work with a slight fever, on an airplane with a cough, taking a train while sneezing.

I justified this in many ways, telling myself that with young kids in day care, if I were to stay home every time I caught a cold, I would never go to work or travel. I also looked around and saw lots of people doing the same. I thought I was following the norm. And the first time I can recall someone telling me to go home when I felt like I was healthy enough to be at work was in February of 2020, a few weeks before the lockdowns began.

Now, I won’t be so blasé. Social norms will have changed. If I have a cough and look like hell, the expectation will be for me to head home. If I am sneezing on an airplane, the passengers will notice.

I have also gotten good at working from home, as has everyone in my professional community. So the costs of working from home will be much lower — I can put in a full day, complete with Zoom meetings, from my home study. There’s less reason to go to the office while feeling sick.

Finally, the danger of spreading a contagious virus will weigh more heavily. Covid-19 may be starting to recede, but who wants the flu? And knowing its human toll, why would I want to give it to anyone?

Even if I had looked up the statistics on the flu one year ago, I would have understood them differently. It took living through a pandemic to get me to appreciate them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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