The next wave(s) - The Orca

The next wave(s)

Gwyn Morgan

Gwyn Morgan: BC has done a tremendous job flattening the curve. The problem is the measures we’ve collectively taken aren’t sustainable. Here’s why.

Locked down since March 16, Canadians are now emerging, as if after a hurricane, to assess the damage that has occurred in just 12 weeks.

The main victims are of course the patients and valiant frontline workers who have succumbed to the coronavirus. But shutting down the economy has ravaged businesses, jobs and savings, while the prime minister’s announcements from the front steps of Rideau Cottage added more than $20 billion a week to the national debt.

With the admitted benefit of hindsight, let us examine some vital questions.

Was confining much of the working-age population the right decision? According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there have been 7,994 COVID-19 deaths as of June 11. Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam says that 81 per cent of deaths are linked to long-term care facilities. Of the remaining 1,519 deaths, most were of people over the age of 70. Only 232 deaths were of people younger than 60 – almost all of whom had pre-existing health conditions. For a healthy working-age person, the risk of dying from COVID-19 is significantly lower than dying by accident or from other diseases.

Would allowing young, healthy people to keep to working have posed an increased risk to the general population?  Experience in BC says not necessarily. The province had the longest list of permitted services by far, including construction, road-paving, manufacturing, skilled trades, and commercial gardening. And yet BC has had only three COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 population, compared with a nationwide average of 21.

If working-age people in other provinces hadn’t been removed from the workforce, we would have experienced fewer job losses, bankruptcies, and social harm, including suicides and family violence. And there would have been less need for crippling increases in our national debt. In hindsight, not keeping healthy working-age people away from their jobs would likely have prevented much of that damage.

What was the cost of shutting down surgical wards? Done to help hospitals prepare for a flood of COVID victims, the problem with cancelling surgeries is Canadians were already suffering long waitlists. A December 2019 Fraser Institute report found waitlists averaging 20 weeks, and totalled more than a million people. But when COVID hit, cancer, cardiac and other patients who finally had a surgical date received notices of indefinite postponement. Knowing a tumour continues to grow or a blocked artery might cause a heart attack adds mental anguish to increased medical risk. Three months later, no one knows how much longer the waits will be. BC, one of the first provinces to reopen surgical wards, has said it may take two years to work through 30,000 cancelled surgeries.

Preparing for the possibility that hospitals could become overwhelmed by COVID-19 victims was prudent. The problem is that our medical system went into the crisis with zero unused capacity and the longest waitlists in the OECD.

Did Sweden get it right? Sweden adopted a no-lockdown policy that Norway’s state epidemiologist criticized as “going against the whole world.” And Sweden has seen a relatively high death rate compared to its Scandinavian neighbors, though below that of locked-down Britain, Spain, Italy, and Belgium, and about the same as France. Quebec, with two million fewer people, has had more deaths.

Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell’s recent comment that Sweden “should have done more to stop the virus” was widely interpreted as a repudiation of his own policy, but it’s now clear he was referring to elderly care facilities, where most deaths have occurred. In an interview last week with Swedish Radio, he said: “There has been news that I believe the strategy was wrong. We still believe the strategy is good, you can always get better at this work.” A continuing decline in deaths per day over the past few weeks supports what I’ll call his “single big wave strategy.”

How was Sweden’s policy different? Swedes were encouraged to work from home, follow good personal hygiene and practice physical distancing. They were also instructed to self-isolate if unwell. The elderly and immune-compromised were advised to stay home. Universities were closed but schools for children under 16 remained open. Shops, daycares, bars, restaurants, and gyms also remained open. Gatherings were limited to 50 people.

These measures are virtually the same as those planned for the phased reopening of BC’s economy, which raises a crucial point. Epidemiologists warn the virus is still out there. But with relatively few Canadians having gained immunity by contracting it, there’s no reason for our susceptibility to be any different than before the shutdowns. While Sweden is taking the hit in one painfully high curve, flattening our curve virtually assures a post-shutdown resurgence of unknown severity.

As governments make plans to minimize deaths from the second wave, protection of the elderly and immuno-compromised should be their top priority. For others, it now seems clear that suicides, other diseases left untreated, family violence, bankruptcies, chronic unemployment, and even the long-term consequences of greater public debt need to be given much higher priority than before.

Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian business leader and a Member of The Order of Canada