We cannot risk becoming complacent with the presence of COVID-19 in our lives

Any balanced response also needs to account for structural and behavioural roadblocks in public health compliance

Fighting COVID-19 requires us all to make sound decisions as a community. Photo: pixpoetry/Unsplash

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

In a July 6 open letter to both the federal and provincial governments, several current and former health experts pleaded for a more rapid and relaxed reopening plan that would resume in-person classes, allow for more international air travel, and pick the economy back up. The basis of their argument comes down to the idea that since we can’t eliminate COVID-19 in Canada at present, we might as well just accept it and get on with our lives. 

Although the letter recognizes the severity of COVID-19 and makes several mentions to risk-based pandemic response measures, it stops just short of outright saying that many more people are going to die, and we should, as a society, give up on those people and focus on getting as closely back to “normal” as possible. The thought process leading up to this conclusion, no matter how well-intentioned, doesn’t adequately account for the difficulties health officials and politicians continue to have in communicating the nuances of COVID-19 prevention to the general public. 

But more than that, this idea, in very defeatist terms, simply accepts that people are going to die. No loss of life should be an acceptable loss of life in a civilized society, and as long as there are steps that could be taken to prevent losing more people to this virus, those steps should be taken to the point of utter exhaustion of all other options.

The open letter calls on politicians to consider the harm that strict and prolonged quarantine measures are doing to children and marginalized communities. However, the fundamental rhetoric of both the letter and the statement published alongside it is alarmingly similar to that of plutocratic Republicans in the US. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick infamously told Fox News that the elderly should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to save the economy. This sentiment is echoed in the open letter which states, “ [ . . . ] in overall population health terms COVID-19’s direct impact on premature mortality is small. While those under the age of 60 account for 65% of cases, they represent just 3% of deaths. With ready access to health services, severe outcomes can be averted in those who do not have pre-existing risk factors.” 

In other words, young, healthy people don’t need to worry so much because their risk of death is much lower than that of the elderly or those with underlying health conditions. Setting aside for a moment that this language seems to accept that the larger risk of COVID-19 deaths amongst certain populations is acceptable, this language abstracts that 3% of deaths from living, breathing humans into a statistical number. This is unacceptable

The letter does make reference to the incredible disparities that have been highlighted and exacerbated because of the necessary lock-down measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. “The societal costs of maintaining these public health measures, even with some gradual relaxation, are too high,” the statement reads. “Canadians are missing scheduled medical appointments and surgeries, which will lead to increased deaths. There are significant challenges for our young with impact on early childhood development, one of the strongest predictors of life-long health and social outcomes.  Education is compromised. There are increases in domestic violence, alcohol and drug intake, and food insecurity.” And of course: “The economic consequences are huge.” 

The open letter also specifically mentions the marginalized communities that are at greater economic risk during lock-down, saying, “The current and proposed measures for reopening will continue to disproportionately impact lower income groups, Black and other racialized groups, recent immigrants to Canada, Indigenous peoples and other populations.”

To its credit, the statement released with the open letter does include recommendations that are meant to address both a more relaxed opening plan, and protections for the most vulnerable in society. The problem with these recommendations comes down to structural stagnation and human behaviour.

Our marginalized communities weren’t well-sheltered from the negative impacts of the social determinants of health to begin with — those circumstances won’t change whether or not our immediate reopening is less cautious or restrictive. These communities will still be in a situation of few choices, especially where it comes to access to healthcare, community resources, and risk-reduced employment. 

Any relaxed reopening plan that wishes to both shelter the marginalized as well as return life to normal would need a huge draw of capital and resources to allow those at risk to avoid dangerous situations, as well as to enforce safe, equitable environments in both the public and the private sectors. Expecting that governments will be willing and able to universally respond to long-standing structural inequalities with the rapidity necessary to meet the reopening speed the open letter seems to be pushing for is ridiculously optimistic. A more relaxed reopening schedule, without increased structural supports, would do little more for those at the margins than throw them from the frying pan into the fire. 

As for human behaviour, if the last four months have shown us nothing else, it’s that as a society we are anything but unified in how we should conduct ourselves during a pandemic. “COVID parties” amongst those who don’t believe the disease exists or, if they do, don’t believe it is that serious, are a growing problem, not only in the US, but in Canada as well. In BC, possible exposure to the virus has already been identified in bars, strip clubs, fitness clubs, and resorts. Unwillingness to wear a mask also remains a problem in Canada, despite the statement’s assertion that Canadians are too scared to resume normal activities with current government rhetoric about the virus. 

A public policy change that recommends people shouldn’t be as concerned as they are now about the virus would almost certainly have negative consequences. Not only will virus-deniers be vindicated, but it could kick off wide-spread belief that all danger has passed, and that further “balanced” health measures as suggested in the open letter, are no longer necessary. Don’t believe me? Take a look at your social media feed and tell me that everyone is going to collectively agree to suddenly make responsible choices if they’re told that it’s fine to stop being so scared of this virus.

What is more than clear is that any solution out of this pandemic cannot be one-size-fits-all. The open letter also recognizes this fact. However, it is foolish to push for a more relaxed, rapid reopening without thoroughly considering the consequences of doing so. There are many options available to us in how we combat this virus going forward. And in every choice we make we have to consider that human lives are the consequence. 

We might be in for a marathon with COVID-19, but we shouldn’t look at how far behind we are and conclude that it’s not worth the effort to run anymore.