In the age of COVID-19, what does it mean to be "healthy"?

Sunday, August 30, 2020 - 7:47pm

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My dad is fifty-six years old. By most measures, he’s in great shape: He’s extremely active, he does manual labor for his work as a contractor, he eats things like bee pollen and protein bars and spinach smoothies and he regularly gets mistaken as fifteen years younger than he is. 

He also sleeps with a CPAP machine, drinks double the daily recommended limit of alcohol and a few years ago had a brief flirtation with heart palpitations. 

So: Is he healthy? For a fifty-six year old, he probably is. His doctor would likely say so, and in the past, I’ve always considered him to be. But this March, the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, and with it came the sudden urge to protect those more vulnerable to infection than me. I stopped seeing my asthmatic friends and visiting office hours of professors well-past retirement age. When classes shut down, I was forced to make the decision to either stay on campus or move home. I  had to ask myself: is my dad healthy enough for me to make this move?  What does “healthy” even mean?

It’s a question, it seems, that doesn’t have a definitive answer. Merriam-Webster defines healthy as to literally be “enjoying good health.” Oxford’s definition is nearly identical: to be “in good health.” And so is Google’s.  

So down the rabbit hole we go. What does it really mean to be “in good health”? Is it just the absence of disease? But my dad is absent from diagnosed disease, yet I don’t think that means he’s just as healthy as me, an active twenty-year-old. So maybe it’s something else — maybe it’s an absence of risk factors for disease. 

But it’s hard to imagine someone with no risk factors: The sort of naked, medical-textbook-prototype person without any personal or family history of illness, who could live a stress-free, high-quality life where there are no risks to their health at all. Surely, that kind of person could only exist between the pages of a book.

This may seem like an overly philosophical question. After all, does it really matter just how we classify someone’s health? Health is a subjective concept, and that subjectivity once seemed both natural and acceptable. But now, in the era of COVID-19, our perceptions of health have the potential to significantly alter our behavior — the healthier we consider ourselves and our loved ones, the more willing we are to take risks related to COVID-19.

Who do we send to the grocery store? The healthiest person in our household, usually. How many people are we allowing into our little circle of friends? Probably more, if we’re healthier; fewer if we’re not. (Which is part of the reason college students all over the country, including in Ann Arbor, are going to frat parties like there’s no tomorrow.) How quickly should we go to the doctor when we start feeling ill? Is a slight runny nose or sore throat enough for us to worry our way to the CVS drive-through testing site? Or are we more confident in our health, waiting until our breathing starts to deteriorate?

As college students starting a new semester, these types of questions will be at the front of all of our minds. In the coming weeks, we will have to make many tough decisions about what is or is not safe during the COVID-19 era, including whether or not we choose to attend in-person classes, how we socialize outside of class and the degree to which we follow the University’s coronavirus policies. How we make our decisions in these situations will rely in no small part on how healthy we perceive ourselves to be. College students leaving behind familial households and moving in with fellow students might feel emboldened to make riskier choices, believing they and their young friends are protected from the major negative consequences of COVID-19. This is obviously a questionable decision, mostly because it can hurt the health of community members who are not young and healthy, like professors or retail workers. But this sort of decision can also negatively affect the health of college students themselves, who are sometimes falsely deemed “healthy” despite having several medical risk factors.

It’s impossible to say whether any given COVID-19 patient would have been better off if they had gone to their doctors earlier. This is especially true in areas where treatment for COVID-19 has been hard to obtain. But I have to imagine there are at least some COVID-19 patients who consider themselves healthy people, and as a result didn’t act as proactively as they could have to protect their health. 

I spoke to my dad last weekend about his health, and he said he does consider himself healthy. “But,” he added, “I know I’m still at a higher risk if I get sick,” due to his various risk factors. Thus, he said he would be acting cautious. This approach of paying heed to risk factors instead of an elusive “healthy” label is one I think would serve college students well to emulate. 

As young people, we can call ourselves healthy if we want to, or unhealthy if we don’t. But regardless of how we choose to label ourselves, we need to be aware of the various complex factors which contribute to our overall health, and how those factors can make us — or others — susceptible to COVID-19. This conscious and introspective approach to health allows us to act proactively instead of reactively, in a way that protects both our own health and that of those around us. It’s an approach I find I am using more than ever as I make my plans for fall semester and return to school, and one that fellow students should consider as well.