The University of Calgary closed its campus on March 13. Classes continued online, but our minds were elsewhere.
Initially, everyone seemed to accept Canada’s political and medical leadership. The usual complaints about Justin Trudeau were muted; British Columbia Chief Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry became a folk hero; there were even paeans of praise for Doug Ford. I was a bit suspicious: why was Ontario applying the same rules in Toronto as in Thunder Bay, where there hadn’t been a case of COVID-19 within 1,000 kilometres? But the media were a sea of cooperation and concern. “Flattening the curve” – so as not to overwhelm medical facilities – became the national, provincial and local refrain.
There was some dissent, but it was all about how the lockdown should have been earlier and harder. For example, on the April 10 episode of CBC radio’s The House, host Chris Hall interrogated Health Minister Patti Hajdu, and then Karina Roman welcomed several experts. In a half hour of grievance, there was not a single question about whether the lockdown might have been too harsh.1
Most common were government-supporting panic-mongers. CBC Ideas host Nahlah Ayed announced: “People are dying all over the world. Most are old, but many are young. Some were already sick, yet many weren’t sick at all.”2 Natasha Crowcroft, director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, announced on TVO’s The Agenda: “It’s killing young, healthy people as well as old people. It’s not just a question of, you know, a few people who might have been near the end of life anyway.”3
No one pointed out to Ayed or Crowcroft that while 2,022 deaths were reported in Quebec as of May 1, not a single person under 30 had died. In Ontario, with 1,121 deaths, no one under 20 had died.4 In both provinces, more than 97 per cent of the people who died were over 60 years old. The 3 per cent under 60 who died included people with “preexisting conditions,” but we’re not told how many. I was unable to find out how many healthy people under 60 have died of COVID-19.
Statements like Ayed’s and Crowcroft’s were ubiquitous and went unchallenged. If anyone said something like “almost all the people who die are old and frail,” someone rushed to assure us that “every death is a tragedy” and “young people are dying, too.” There were occasional articles about Sweden’s iconoclasm, but with headlines that rushed to announce that Sweden’s Relaxed Approach to the Coronavirus Could Already Be Backfiring (time.com) and As Sweden’s Death Toll Mounts, Epidemiologists Urge Leaders to Ignore Their Own Public Health Agency (nationalpost.com).5
But then, one day, everything changed. What happened first? Maybe it was other countries loosening their lockdowns, or Canadian premiers musing about opening things up. Maybe a critical mass of the population realized that we had successfully flattened the curve and hospitals were not inundated.
I don’t have great complaints about how Canada’s various governments handled COVID-19. It was new, and we were learning. And if we overreacted, we at least compensated people who lost their jobs or were otherwise hurt by the pandemic and government action.
I do complain that information wasn’t readily available. Only Quebec’s government site included death statistics by age. Sometimes it felt like we couldn’t be trusted with the facts and were being lied to for our own good. Sometimes it seemed like two sides were drawn: good people willing to shut down everything to save a life; and we the selfish, more concerned about money than health – as if there were no health consequences to the lockdown.
I listened to a half-hour interview conducted in mid-April with Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former state epidemiologist.6 Maybe Sweden’s approach was wrong but, as Giesecke said, we won’t know for a year. He suspects that the lockdowns were not helpful (and destructive in many ways) and that the number of deaths will tend to even out among countries. He suggests Sweden and other countries erred by not protecting the most vulnerable – the elderly in large institutions and poorer immigrant communities (but those are hardly new problems). Giesecke sounds like what a public servant should be – low-key, honest, without talking points and not looking over his shoulder.
Did we worry too much about schools when our focus should have been nursing homes – as it is with the annual flu? Giesecke described this as a bad flu season.
Every year, more than 400,000 Canadians die; every month more than 30,000. Flu causes about 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.7 At the time of writing (May 7), 3,391 of us have died of COVID-19. A lot of nursing homes, a few meatpacking plants, and Montreal and its surroundings seem to be where the virus remains untamed.
Right now, there are a great many people who have positions to defend – that we did the right thing or that we were too soft. I think we did okay under the circumstances but, in the end, when we’ve had a chance to think it over, I think we’ll decide our focus was misplaced.
What will we do next time? Can we shut down the country every time there’s a serious run of the flu? As Albert Camus wrote, “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.”
2 Ideas, CBC radio, May 1, 2020.
3 The Agenda, TVO, April 20, 2020.
5 See The Swedish Exception in this issue.
6 LockdownTV, UnHerd, April 17, 2020.
7 Ontario.ca, The Flu.