Sophie’s Choice

Commentary, COVID-19, Culture Wars, Brian Giesbrecht

William Styron’s brilliant novel “Sophie’s Choice” has a mother forced by the Nazis to make a terrible choice – choose which child will live and which will die. Now, COVID-19 choices are just as unsettling. In Italy’s hospitals doctors must decide which patients are placed on the few ventilators, leaving others to die.

Canadian doctors have not yet been forced to make such terrible choices – and we hope they will not be. However, even the choices made to date will certainly result in deaths. For example, people are still working in grocery stores in spite of the fact that some of them will become infected. Although most workers who get sick will recover, their germs will almost certainly cause some elderly or compromised people to die. Sophie’s Choice.

There are alternatives. Boxes of basic foodstuffs could be delivered to citizens without the need for them to go into a store. Although this would save lives – it isn’t done. Simply put, it would not be tolerated by a population used to selecting their own food. There are many other examples of steps that could be taken – but aren’t – because they are considered too intrusive or too impractical. Sophie’s Choice.

Think about it, we make these choices all the time. Every year elderly people in nursing homes die as a result of germs brought in by visitors. Only during bad flu seasons do we restrict visitors. We accept the fact that there will be deaths from visiting, but we consider the human cost of disallowing all visiting too high. 

Similarly, many die on our highways. We could drastically cut down on the number of deaths simply by cutting the speed limit in half. We don’t, because it would be impractical. Sophie’s Choice.

Which brings me to COVID-19. Our economy has virtually stopped as a result of the stay at home policy. The theory is that we must “flatten the curve”. So far the results here have been hopeful. But this is not sustainable. At some point, we have to get the economy moving again. We have to get more people back to work.

So is it possible to sustain the benefits we have achieved while getting more people back to work? 

In fact, some countries have achieved this balance. Holland, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore have functioning economies while practicing robust virus control strategies. They have kept infections down while people still go to work and are living relatively normal lives. Their schools and restaurants remain open.

To achieve this balance their citizens must cooperate with distancing and quarantine regulations. Those that don’t are detected and prosecuted. Travellers are carefully screened and their quarantining is closely monitored. Both Taiwan and Singapore also do much more testing than in Canada. This is crucial, they must know who to send home and who can work.

Can we up our game so that we can get more people back to work without deaths going up? Can we learn from Taiwan and Singapore so we can get through this pandemic without sacrificing our children’s future? The balance we have to strike is minimizing the number of deaths while keeping our economic and social infrastructure from crumbling.

Every major decision is a “Sophie’s Choice”. In these dark times we must find the right balance.


Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow at Frontier Centre for Public Policy.