COVID-19: The Stark Reminder of a Dysfunctional Health-Care System

It has been almost one year since the world was brought to its knees by a microscopic particle known as COVID-19. Since then, the virus has taken the lives of […]
Published on March 23, 2021

It has been almost one year since the world was brought to its knees by a microscopic particle known as COVID-19. Since then, the virus has taken the lives of more than 20,000 Canadians and infected another 800,000. 

But those are just the numbers that show up on media screens and government paperwork. The real human cost is exponentially higher if we consider the cumulative number of lives that have been disrupted or permanently altered as COVID-19 infections overtook family members and friends.

The damage doesn’t stop there. The losses escalate further if we include the hundreds of thousands of non-COVID-19 patients who have been denied necessary medical care or had their care interrupted or postponed because of hastily hatched COVID-19 protocols.   

Governments and health-care bodies gave little thought to those currently undergoing or waiting for treatment when they clumsily reassigned most of our limited medical resources to the impending COVID-19 health crises that, in some locations, never happened.

As a result, all but the most urgent medical care was restricted, and many facilities were temporarily shuttered. Canadians who suffered from anything other than COVID-19 were stripped of their access to treatment and lost opportunities to undergo timely diagnostic procedures, surgeries and medical care. Cancer screening programs fell by the wayside and hearts needing repair were left unattended. Tumours and anxieties were left to grow unabated and frailties unnecessarily (in some cases) gave way to death. 

Hospital beds were readied for acute COVID-19 patients by sending some patients home and dispatching others (the sick, elderly and palliative) to overcrowded long-term care homes. We all know how well that worked. 

Pandemic or not, patients suffering from serious ailments had the right to expect that they would receive medically necessary treatment and there is a growing awareness that our so-called universal access health-care system utterly failed them. To add insult to injury, our untreated, non-COVID-19 patients are increasingly and unceremoniously being labelled as “collateral damage.”

Jerry Dunham was a 46-year-old father and husband who died from heart failure two months after his April surgery to install a pacemaker/defibrillator was postponed. As a consequence of efforts to keep hospitals exclusively available for COVID-19 cases, he passed away surrounded by his family and in a hospital that was virtually empty.  

When asked to comment on Dunham’s death, Alberta Health Services provided the standard bureaucratic response—all urgent surgeries are available during the pandemic and they “are not aware of any deaths due to cancellations of scheduled surgeries.” 

In March 2020, Dr. Bill Gardner, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, experienced a sore throat and trouble swallowing—but there were no doctors available to evaluate his symptoms. Four months later, he began to cough up blood and was finally able to undergo diagnostic tests. He was subsequently diagnosed with stage two oropharyngeal cancer. 

The above cases occurred early in the pandemic, but 12 months later it seems that our health-care system still hasn’t figured out how to provide Canadians with necessary medical care while dealing with fluctuating numbers of COVID-19 cases. 

Just recently, a well-known and award-winning actress died while waiting for surgery that was postponed by COVID-19. Rosine Chouinard-Chauveau was just 28 years old and the mother of a young son. In the aftermath of her death, the surgeon-in-chief at McGill University Health Centre took care to remind reporters that “each (delayed surgery) is a human being. It’s a person who needs surgery and has a story and is suffering because they can’t get their surgery done.” 

Canada’s existing issues in developing, maintaining and consolidating electronic health records make it difficult to fully document the harm that non-COVID-19 patients have suffered from reduced access to diagnostic or treatment procedures.

But the surgical backlog alone is enormous.  In Quebec, more than 140,000 surgeries have been delayed or postponed because of COVID. In Ontario, a backlog of almost 150,000 surgeries accrued between March 15 and June 13, 2020. Across Canada, 72 per cent of surgical procedures were postponed in April alone. Surely, all of this is far more than “collateral damage.” Nor is it just the result of a health-care system in crisis because of a nasty virus. Rather, it is additional evidence of a health-care system that has been in crisis for years.

Despite our lofty principles of providing health care with universal coverage and access, the daily realities are governed by rationed care; that means our health-care system is increasingly defined by its denial of timely medical care and wait lists that are measured in months and years. 

The human costs associated with COVID-19 serve as a stark reminder of the tragic consequences that have long been associated with waiting for health care.


Susan Martinuk is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and author of a soon-to-be released book, Patients at Risk: Stories that Expose Canada’s Health-care Crisis.

Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash.

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