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An ambulance outside a hospital in Montreal on Jan. 15.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Canada has reached another grim milestone: 40,000 COVID-19 deaths.

That this has been greeted with nary a shrug says a lot about how, in the 26 months since we registered the country’s first pandemic fatality, we have become inured to death.

We have not so much learned to live with COVID-19 as we have come to not really care any more about its lethal toll.

Still, crossing a new threshold is as good an excuse as any to take stock of where we are.

To date, there have been 3.8 million recorded cases in Canada (the true number is certainly much higher because we’ve largely given up on testing.)

There have also been more than 155,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations, including 17 per cent of patients (more than 26,000) who ended up in intensive care. No wonder our health care workers are burned out.

Despite the dismissive “it’s just a cold” rhetoric, COVID-19 remains the third leading cause of death in Canada, after only cancer and cardiovascular disease.

In 2020, Canada recorded 14,642 deaths. In 2021, the second year of the pandemic, the toll was even higher, at 16,489 deaths, despite the mitigating impact of vaccines.

In the first four months of 2022, we’ve already recorded almost 9,000 more pandemic deaths – so we’re on track for an even higher mortality this year.

Projections are difficult, of course, because there are some tricky variables.

There is some seasonality to virus spread, so we can expect cases – and hence hospitalizations and deaths – to continue to drop as they have done in recent weeks with the arrival of spring.

But what will happen in the fall? In each of the past two years, we saw big spikes in September. That was before the more infectious Omicron variant and its offspring, and back when we still had some public health restrictions aimed at limiting spread.

Vaccines have become less effective – and enthusiasm for vaccination seems to be waning faster than immunity. Almost 90 per cent of eligible Canadians have received two doses of vaccine, but only 48 per cent have taken a third. Yes, you can get infected with coronavirus after being vaccinated. You can even be reinfected. But the claims (mostly by a loud minority of unvaccinated) that vaccinated people have the same or higher risks as the unvaccinated are patently untrue.

The latest data from the Public Health Agency of Canada show that an unvaccinated person who is infected with coronavirus is three times more likely to be hospitalized as someone who got two doses, and four times more like than someone triple vaccinated. In people over 60, the unvaccinated are at even greater risk – six times more likely to be hospitalized.

So let’s talk about older people, the demographic group that is, by far, the hardest hit by COVID-19.

More than 90 per cent of pandemic deaths in Canada have been in people older than 60. (More specifically, 60 per over age 80; 20 per cent age 70-79, and 11 per cent age 60-69.)

There is no doubt that elders, especially those with chronic health conditions, or living in long-term care, are at far greater risk. In recent weeks, we’ve again seen a steady increase in outbreaks, and deaths, in long-term care facilities.

But let’s please stop with the too-often-uttered ageist nonsense: “They were going to die anyhow.”

Deaths from cancer, heart disease, COPD, diabetes and other things that routinely kill elders have not dropped one iota. The tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths are on top of that – additional years of life lost.

Governments have largely stopped collecting and publishing data. But the hospitalizations and deaths won’t stop just because we avert our gaze.

We can always mollify ourselves by saying: “Hey, it’s worse elsewhere.”

The U.S. has just surpassed one million deaths, a number that is as unfathomable as it is shocking – and 2.5 times worse than Canada’s mortality rate, on a per capita basis.

But Americans pride themselves on their selfish individualism; Canadians are supposed to be a little more collectively inclined.

Or at least that was the perception before COVID-19 reared its ugly head.

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