Fear and the Law of Unintended Consequences

David Zweig
3 min readMar 11, 2021
Photo by Martha Dominguez de Gouveia on Unsplash

One of the most important costs of our pandemic policies — and the resultant media amplification of them –– that emphasize risk and the need to stay home are the myriad medical needs unrelated to Covid that have been unattended to. In short, people have been afraid to go to the doctor because they’re frightened of contracting Covid. More worryingly, many have been afraid to take their kids to the hospital.

An article in JAMA Pediatrics published last month showed that pediatric hospital admissions in 2020 fell by as much as an extraordinary 45%, compared to the median rates over the previous decade. One inpatient survey cited in the study found that greater than one-third of parents delayed seeking medical care for their child because of fears surrounding Covid-19.

A number of studies have shown that these delays have led to grave harm, including death. Just a sampling: Children with acute-onset of type 1 diabetes, and children with with acute-onset leukaemia, with dramatic symptoms, were nevertheless delayed in coming to the hospital. The parents of a child who couldn’t move his bowels for a week were told it was mere constipation by their pediatrician over the phone, but once in the emergency room doctors discovered a large abdominal tumor. In a small Italian study, the parents of these children with delayed treatment all said they avoided coming to the hospital out of a fear of contracting Covid. A Massachusetts study saw that a spike in pediatric patients with delayed treatment for appendicitis led to a significant increase in serious complications.

Regarding patients with heart disease, the JAMA study noted, “it is unclear whether reductions in admission rates represent purely elective surgical delays or the possibility of decreased recognition of congenital heart disease because of decreased contact with health care.”

In conclusion, the authors wrote:

Together, these findings are worrisome, although not definitive, in that unmet health care needs may be accumulating in the pediatric population as a result of decreased health care interactions.

The authors suggest that, in part, the drop in hospital admissions may have had to do with kids not getting as sick this past year because they weren’t interacting as much with…

David Zweig

Author of INVISIBLES. Forthcoming: AN ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION (2022), and MERELY PLAYERS (2023?). I write for @NYMag @TheAtlantic @NYTimes @Wired