It shouldn’t take a dead child to wake us up.
But the death of 13-year-old Emily Viegas is just that – a wake-up call, and a brutal reminder that COVID-19 is not done with us yet.
Far from it.
COVID-19 continues to spread in Canada at an alarming rate – almost 10,000 cases daily. Ontario gets all the media attention, but case counts are exploding in Alberta and British Columbia, too. Even Nova Scotia’s bubble is leaking, if not bursting.
While our contact-tracing efforts have proven abysmal and the public sharing of data has been incredibly opaque, every indication is that the continued spread is driven largely by workplace outbreaks.
Essential workers – those who make sure we have food to eat and an endless stream of material goods from such retailers as Amazon – are paying a steep price for our consumerism, and public authorities are doing little to protect them.
Many essential workers, in factories, warehouses and retail outlets, have few labour protections. They lack easy access to paid sick days, and they face constant threats of losing their jobs if they stay home or post on social media about the outbreaks they are witnessing.
Workplace cases soon make their way to the community when people bring the virus home, often to crowded households where families are cooped up.
That’s one of the most disturbing third-wave trends we’re seeing: Entire families – more often than not working-class and racialized – have been sickened and hospitalized.
Emily lived in Brampton, Ont., Canada’s COVID-19 hot spot and, not coincidentally, the country’s warehouse and distribution centre. Her dad worked at one of these warehouses; her mom was already in hospital. Now Emily is dead.
Deaths in young people are exceedingly rare. Emily’s death is the eighth recorded pediatric death in Canada. But that just makes her passing feel crueller.
The best way to shield children from the pandemic is to protect their parents – to take the necessary measures to get the spread of the coronavirus under control.
It’s not just about shutting down international flights or cracking down on parties. We need to ensure that any operational workplaces are truly essential, that work conditions are as safe as possible, that workplaces where outbreaks occur are shut down swiftly and that workers have basic protections such as the ability to stay home when they’re sick without financial penalty.
It’s been said often but, in many ways, the third wave is a new pandemic unto itself. The variants, including B.1.1.7 and P.1, are more contagious and the symptoms more severe than coronavirus classic.
Increasingly, older people are being vaccinated – 12 million Canadians have received their jab, and counting. But that is shifting risk to younger people.
For months, our intensive care units and morgues were replete with elders, especially those who had lived in congregate settings such as nursing homes.
Now it’s young and middle-aged adults filling up the hospital beds. People who have jobs, or are out and about in the community, are furthering the spread of illness.
Our hospitals’ ICUs are overflowing, not just because more people are sick but because they’re surviving longer. Some groups, such as pregnant women, are being particularly hard-hit.
The stress on the system is so great – with more than 4,200 pandemic patients in hospital, including more than 1,400 in intensive care – that we are shipping patients from major cities to far-flung hospitals in search of a free bed.
Indeed, Emily Viegas’s father hesitated to bring his daughter to hospital because he didn’t want to add more load to an already overburdened system and feared she could end up alone in a faraway hospital.
Our hospitals are actively adopting guidelines to determine who we treat – and who we don’t – if things such as lifesaving drugs and oxygen are no longer available. This is a chilling new burden for health workers, who have already been beaten down by three waves of coronavirus and even more waves of political mismanagement.
Vaccination offers some hope, but there are still many more challenges to come. We don’t yet fully know what the long-term health consequences of being sickened by the coronavirus are, but there is a growing body of evidence that they can be devastating. The number of “long COVID” cases continues to climb, and about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of those who recover from severe illness have reported chronic symptoms; even those with mild symptoms can have lasting repercussions. Then there is all the collateral damage, from delayed surgeries to mental-health issues.
We are increasingly antsy and want all this to be over. We have become numb to the numbers and the modelling predictions.
But let us hope we haven’t grown so numb that we can’t see the death of a child for what it is: Not just an individual tragedy, but yet another symbol of our collective failure.
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