The reports about nursing home deaths keep getting worse. Thousands of parents and grandparents have died before their time because of our collective negligence. At the same time, our decision to lock down has economic consequences that will hurt us for generations.
The overwhelming majority of deaths from Covid-19 were elderly people with serious health problems. The Ontario and Quebec nursing home reports are already quite clear: to save money, we did things that killed people – like paying part time nursing home workers so little that they had to work in more than one nursing home just to make ends meet. These people unwittingly spread the virus from home to home. And instead of isolating infected people, in some cases we put them back into nursing homes, virtually guaranteeing more deaths. We too often failed to provide proper equipment, we failed to support besieged health care workers and essential staff. In our haste to protect ourselves we forgot the people who needed our protection.
Some jurisdictions did better than others. British Columbia, for instance, recognized early on that if they paid workers a decent wage and gave them full time work they would not have workers moving between nursing homes – and thus risk spreading the virus exponentially. Why Ontario and Quebec did not follow that little bit of common sense will probably be the subject of future inquiries.
To the south of us, states like Florida recognized early on that it was insanity to place an infected person back into a nursing home. Why states like New York and New Jersey didn’t recognize this obvious fact – and did exactly that – is not clear.
We should reflect on some of the other parts of our pandemic response that we got all wrong as well. For instance, how is it that Hong Kong, which is about a mile from mainland China, has a death rate many times smaller than that of Canada? Taiwan did best of all, all the while keeping businesses and schools open. Switzerland initially decided to lockdown – but then decided to let businesses continue to operate, while it sensibly focussed on protecting the old and vulnerable. That turned out to be the right decision.
And how is it that Sweden flattened its curve without shutting down businesses or closing primary schools? Swedish officials candidly admit that they did a poor job of protecting nursing home residents, but the country has emerged from the pandemic without a lockdown-devastated economy. Or, strangest of all, little Belarus didn’t really do anything about the pandemic. They are too poor to stay home and get cheques from the government- so they went to work and lived their lives. So why don’t they seem to be doing any worse than many other countries that locked down?
For that matter, most of the world’s 7.5 billion people are too poor to stay home and get government money. Social distancing for most is impossible. Are people dying by the millions in those places? The answer, so far, appears to be “no”.
Even as we resorted to the drastic strategy of shutting down businesses and closing schools we knew that while this virus is incredibly hard on elderly people with multiple health problems – those people we failed to protect – it goes very easy on children and is not that hard on younger, healthy people.
So, why did we insist on quarantining all the healthy, younger people while failing to protect the elderly? Why did we empty the schools, when this virus is not even as lethal for children as ordinary flu? Why did we shut down our businesses and seriously compromise our children’s future? Why did we allow functionaries to invent social distance rules for us – some downright foolish- when we are perfectly capable of assessing our own risk levels?
Why did we insist on treating all age groups in exactly the same way, when it was apparent very early on that this virus is so hard on elderly people with existing health problems, but practically no threat to children, and not much more of a threat to healthy people than a normal flu? And when it became clear early on that densely populated cities were at special risk, but rural areas were not nearly as threatened, why did we continue to insist that a “one size fits all” approach was necessary? Politicians made rules based on the most at risk people, when the vast majority of the population doesn’t fit that category. Next time, aren’t we much better off leaving most risk assessment decisions to the individual, and allowing local authorities to assess local needs where regulations are required?
And haven’t we created “Frankensteins” by delegating all of our personal health decisions to our premiers and prime minister? Some leaders have behaved better than others, but in some provinces the social distancing rules have been arbitrary and nonsensical. Consider the case of the mother detained, thrown into the back of a police car, and intrusively searched – all because she let her daughter have a swing at a deserted playground. And the case of a retired man handed an expensive ticket for the “crime” of eating a muffin while sitting alone in his automobile in a Tim Horton’s parking lot. These farcical cases clearly demonstrate how unwise it is to unnecessarily delegate personal responsibilities to politicians. Perhaps most outrageous of all is the expensive ticket handed to a socially distancing pastor who was handing out food to homeless people. When these incidents are compared to the thousands of protestors and rioters now crowding together in the streets – with the blessing of the same leaders who demanded that solitary muffin-eaters be criminalized – it highlights the foolishness of abdicating our personal responsibilities to much too fallible leaders.
It also appears that some of these leaders – including our prime minister – have become too fond of their newfound roles of sending us welfare cheques while they invent yet more rules. It is worrying that their approval ratings appear to go up while they bribe us with our own money – and pretend that is only their leadership that stands between us and certain death. It appears that too many politicians enjoy this artificial status we have given them far too much. It is discouraging that our mainstream media plays such a passive role as our nation dissolves into something that looks more like a socialist police state than the country we thought we were.
Already we have politicians boasting that it was their rules, and all of our social distancing, that saved us from mass death. It reminds me of the joke iconoclast Peter Hitchens tells: The fellow goes to see his doctor about the spots on his face. The doctor says “You have measles – I have to cut off your leg”. The doctor proceeds to do so. The now one-legged fellow visits the doctor the next month and tells him the spots went away. The doctor says “See, I cured you”.
And that is what we will have from politicians and health officials from now on. But it isn’t true. Countries like Sweden and Taiwan did not close their schools and shut their businesses, and still “flattened their curve”. Poor countries, that couldn’t lockdown even if they wanted to did as well as we did. Non lockdown countries generally did as well as lockdown countries – but didn’t devastate their economies in the process.
And the criticisms of countries, like Sweden, that refused to accept the lockdown model completely miss the mark. Lockdown was said by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be essential to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed by a surge of cases that would result in unnecessary deaths. The “curve” must be “flattened”. And the “flattening the curve” theory was entirely sound. But Sweden’s health care system never even came close to being overwhelmed. Lockdown was proven to be unnecessary for Sweden and other non-lockdown countries to prevent their health care systems from being overwhelmed. In fact, the WHO has recognized this fact, and now puts Sweden forward as a model to follow in the future.
But the criticisms, such as the recent Globe and Mail and National Post articles, do not mention this vital point. Astoundingly, they do not even appear to understand it. Instead, they focus on which country had the most overall deaths. In fact, Sweden’s overall death rate – most from nursing homes – is 4,694 out of a population of 10 million. That is a very small number. In actuarial “person years lost” calculations – remember, these were mainly elderly people with many deadly health problems – it is a tiny number. It is also a number that will need careful analysis, just as all the other numbers will. Deaths are counted differently from country to country. Did a person die from Covid-19, or did a person die with the virus in their system is just one of the questions that experts will report on in peer reviewed studies. It is astounding that neither the Globe or Post pieces even mentioned such questions.
If a comparison of country to country is to be done, then a more useful comparison than using small countries like Denmark and Norway, would be between Britain and Sweden. It should be remembered that Britain (as well as Holland) was originally going to resist full lockdown and do exactly what Sweden ended up doing. It was only because of the truly scary number of deaths projected by Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College model – that same model that turned out to be wildly wrong – that Britain (and Holland) changed course and chose full lockdown.
How did Britain do in comparison with Sweden? In fact, Britain’s number of dead per million is higher plus its economy has suffered all the devastation of a full shutdown. Sweden’s economy is up and running, while Britain has its workers on the dole. Why both the Globe and Mail nor the National Post chose to ignore such an important comparison is not clear.
Neither criticism recognizes the fact that most of the world’s population is far too poor to follow the lockdown model, and yet those poor countries appear to be doing about as well as locked down countries in terms of numbers of dead. Neither discusses the devastation in terms of suicide, domestic violence, riots, and famine that lockdown has caused. Neither mentions the extremely important fact that the lockdown strategy was based on models – in particular the Imperial College model – that turned out to be both deeply flawed – and entirely wrong. It does not bode well for Canada when both major newspapers offer such weak analyses, and appear to endorse the federal government’s destructive lockdown measures – and also appear to endorse just doing more of the same next time.
Both articles are also misleading, in that they a suggest that Swedish officials made admissions that their policies failed. This is untrue. Both Sweden’s Prime Minister and Anders Tegnell stand behind the basic approach their country took. They acknowledge that there were too many nursing home deaths and – like Canada – need to do better to protect the elderly, but both continue to, stand behind the decision not to close down schools and businesses.
Most importantly, both criticisms do not appear to understand that “flattening the curve” suppresses the virus, but does nothing to stop it. The number of deaths from Covid-19 in any particular country depends on many factors, and will be the subject of study for years. If the number of dead was in fact the most important number to look at then the appalling number of deaths in New York – a completely locked down city – would be determinative. The truth is that we will have no idea what the total number of deaths will be worldwide for some time, and we will need time to properly interpret the numbers.
The essential importance of the Swedish model, and the other countries that did not completely lockdown, is that lockdown was not necessary to prevent their healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. They avoided the devastation we have inflicted on ourselves by shutting down our businesses, closing our schools, and putting everyone on welfare. It is simply untrue that Sweden’s economy is now in the same shape as are the still partially locked down economies. We are only beginning to see how much damage we have done to ourselves. It is likely that our children and grandchildren will be paying for our folly far into the future.
We will have some time now to assess our response to this virus and prepare for a second wave of this one – or the next one – that will inevitably come along. Hopefully we will learn a thing or two from our experience with this one. Did the “nanny state” model we employed- where the government sends everyone home and tries to pay them with borrowed money – ever make sense? Isn’t the Swedish approach – keeping businesses and schools open, mandating against large gatherings – but providing accurate information, and letting citizens do their own risk assessments- what we should do from now on? In fact, Sweden’s basic approach is what the WHO is now recommending.
Which, of course, is exactly the way we did things for the first million or so years of human history. Viruses arrived, ran their course, and moved on. The relationship between humankind and viruses is a very old one.
At a certain stage we did learn to manage outbreaks so they would not be as deadly. The concept of the “quarantine” – isolating possible carriers for forty days – is quite ancient. Other necessary government edicts were also introduced. But life still went on more or less normally, even in times of pestilence. The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment all unfolded as germs made their way through populations.
In more recent times, the practice of locking down nursing homes, or even temporarily closing schools, has been practiced as a necessary public health measure. But businesses were not shut down with almost everyone ordered to stay in their homes. Think back to the “summer of love” – 1969 – when thousands of young people crowded together cheek by sweaty jowl at Woodstock. 1969 was also the year that the Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 people in the United States and over a million people worldwide. But anyone who suggested then that all healthy people should be sent home and put on welfare would have been laughed at.
And yet, that is exactly what we did this time. For the first time in human history we put all the healthy people in quarantine – we sent them home and let the government become their Mom – inventing scads of house rules for us and giving us an allowance. Quite apart from the economic devastation this is causing we are already seeing some of the results of this enormous experiment playing out to the south of us, where a few million young people cooped up far too long are now blowing off steam in a very dangerous way. A few million angry unemployed young men is a ticking time bomb, regardless of whether they are in North America or elsewhere. I suspect that we will see many more unpleasant surprises from our misguided experiment. Increased rates of suicide, domestic violence, addiction, and depression are only a few of the examples. In poorer parts of the world deaths from famine and violence- with little help from devastated western economies – will probably vastly exceed any lives saved by lockdowns.
It should strike even our mainstream newspaper editors as odd that the same leaders who yesterday were insisting that people should not be allowed to attend houses of worship in a socially distancing way – or eat muffins solo in their cars – are now being encouraged to participate in protests where they march and engage in acts that have them jammed together with thousands of others. It is almost a Monty Python moment when our chief public health officer Theresa Tam – who first told us Covid was no threat; then it was, first told us never mind wearing masks; then we must wear them, and on and on, now tells people to take part in protests – but not to yell too much.
It is becoming clearer by the day that we drastically overreacted. We should have kept our heads – like Sweden did – and allowed people to do their own risk assessments. Government regulation should have been kept to a minimum, and mostly at the local level. In fact, we did things exactly backwards – we failed to isolate the very people who were most at risk from this virus, and instead we isolated the healthy. Our leaders failed us – and we behaved like “sheeple.”
Next time, shouldn’t we calmly protect the people that need protecting, and let common sense – and not panic – guide us?
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.