It was a year ago this week that Canada recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Since then, more than 761,000 cases have been added to our pandemic ledger, and more than 19,500 deaths.
Also since then, the provinces’ response to the pandemic has had a singular focus: flattening the curve of new cases through partial or complete business and school lockdowns, at the documented expense of the economy, jobs, education and mental health.
The lockdowns have worked. No government has been happy to impose curfews, stay-at-home orders and the like, but the measures have saved lives and prevented hospitals from being overrun. One can easily imagine how bad things might have gotten last spring, or could still get this winter, without the extreme physical-distancing measures implemented in many provinces.
The question Canadians are starting to ask, though, is, will they be living through more of the same painful disruptions for another year?
The answer would be a hard yes were it not for one critical factor: vaccinations. They are here, and they are getting administered – in spite of early hiccups in their rollout.
If the provinces meet their goals and inoculate elderly people living in long-term care and retirement homes by the spring, the singular focus on limiting new cases at all costs has to fall into question.
After all, about 75 per cent to 80 per cent of the people who have died in Canada were living in communal homes. And only 690 of the 17,315 people who died of COVID-19 up to Jan. 15 of this year were under 60, according to Statistics Canada.
That’s why the vaccine is being rolled out first in LTC and retirement homes, and then will go to Canadians in decreasing order of age. And that should mean that the worst consequences of the pandemic will be mitigated by the summer.
So at what point will Ottawa and the provinces conclude that the positive effects of lockdowns (fewer cases and deaths) no longer outweigh a growing number of negatives?
Add these to the impact on the economy, on government deficits and on general mental health, and it could become harder for health officials to sell the idea that the absolute priority must be to control new case rates at any expense.
They may have to admit that it is in the national interest to reopen all classrooms, restaurants and non-essential businesses before the full effects of mass inoculation set in – even though some people will still die of COVID-19, and still wind up in the ICU, but in fewer numbers.
It is the job of public-health officials, in unison with elected officials, to manage such tradeoffs.
Pneumonia and influenza, for instance, together kill between 6,000 and 9,000 Canadians each year – numbers that could be dramatically reduced by stricter suppression measures, as they collaterally were this year, except that society deems the toll acceptable.
As well, over the course of the pandemic, public-health officials in Quebec and Ontario, the worst hit provinces, have tried to make in-class schooling a priority, choosing the benefits for children over the risk of infections whenever possible.
The same thinking should be broadened to more of society as the year continues. This will not mean ending infection suppression measures such as mask-wearing, working from home, testing and tracing, travel curbs and crowd-control limits. These will be with us for a long time, especially now that alarmingly contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus have been detected in Canada.
Make no mistake: the ramping up of vaccinations into the summer will not mean the end of the pandemic, or result in a return to normalcy this year. No way.
But business and school closings – the suppression measures with the worst side effects – should in theory be coming to an end. Small businesses and restaurants could reopen in more places, and more parents could plan on in-class learning again this school year, if the risk of dying from COVID-19 drops as it is expected to.
It’s time to start talking about this. Canadians need hope. Their governments need to extract as much of this precious resource from every vial of vaccine as they can.
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