Saturday, November 14, 2020

Why we need to lock down hard, not pussyfoot around the pandemic

Globe and Mail columnist André Picard hit the nail on the head in his column recently, including snippets like, "If you want to halt the spread of a pandemic illness, half measures are not sufficient", "You can't slow the spread of the coronavirus by loosening restrictions", and finally, "As long as we have high levels of circulating virus ...  the economy won't thrive". 

Then, in a later article, Picard drives his point home even more forcefully: "They [the politicians] have to justify why they are  ignoring sound advice, and bear the consequences", and, "If your position is that businesses must remain open at all costs, and infections, hospitalizations and deaths be damned, then say so". Ouch!

So, here's how I see it.

I think everyone understands that locking down hurts the economy, so we have to be ready and willing to support it (probably at the federal level, as they have access to more, and cheaper, borrowing), in full knowledge that we will be paying for it for years to come. People also understand that a lockdown has mental health implications for some people - anxiety, depression, PTSD, even suicidal thoughts - and we need to be ready and willing to deal with that too, as well as possible (particularly the avoidance of suicides). And it too will cost money. But what would you prefer a month or two of highly subsidized economy followed by relative normality, or a year plus of subsidized economy (which is what we are staring at now).

These repercussions, though, are of unknown magnitude and seriousness, and arguably easier to deal with than a long-term out-of-control pandemic, with all the deaths and long-term health problems that will necessarily accompany it. These are known unknowns, to borrow a phrase.

No-one is really going to be happy with the kind of low-level, simmering economy we have at the moment. And even that level of economic openness is still enabling a rapid rise in COVID cases and constant deaths. And in the meantime, people are still suffering from anxiety, depression, and other mental problems. This is not a situation we should be looking to continue. If our half-hearted semi-lockdown situation is causing economic malaise and psychologic trauma, then we should try and minimize it by a few weeks of really hard lockdown, and a return as soon as possible to near-normal.

We know that, as cases continue to rise and the hospitals reach saturation point, a full lockdown is going be needed at some point. Surely, it is better to do it now, before things get any worse and an even longer lockdown becomes necessary. If we just muddle along as we are now, cases and deaths will continue to rise, and we will be stuck in this for MANY MONTHS more.

If we are worried about how a lockdown impinges on people's civil liberties - this is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's line: "A lockdown constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people's fundamental rights" - well, sometimes we need to trample the rights of a few in the short term to ensure the rights of the many in the long term. Right now, MY rights (and, more importantly, the rights of medical personnel and essential workers) are being compromised by those individuals who insist on pretending that everything is normal and that parties and crowded bars are acceptable. 

The other conservative argument we hear a lot is, "I trust the public to do the right thing, and they don't need nannying". Even Justin Trudeau echoed this sentiment when talking to these very same premiers. How is that working for you Alberta? Manitoba? USA? Some of us have been doing the right thing since Day 1 (although even we have found ourselves taking some sloppy shortcuts in the absence of strong, clear, enforced rules), but some people feel that their own personal needs and way of life is more important than the general good.

But it can be done, with good simple messaging and strong policing. If the notoriously independent and individualist Australian people are willing to submit to a lockdown like the city of Melbourne imposed recently - and what a resounding success that was: ZERO cases for two weeks now, after a spike in cases almost as bad as Canada is now experiencing, with no riots, only minor protests, and the politicians involved are now riding a wave of popularity - then I'm sure Canadians can manage it. And yes, it will cost money too (the financial safety net instituted by Australia is significantly more generous than that available anywhere in Canada). The residents of Melbourne, and the rest of Australia and New Zealand and a handful of other proactive countries, are living a near-as-damn-it-normal life right now. If you need an inspiring story, then read that one.

So, we need to return to a much more serious lockdown than we are seeing currently. (In fact, this should have been done way back in early September, when it was clear that a second wave was starting.) Pretty much the whole medical establishment is in agreement on this, other than a few outliers of the Barrington Declaration persuasion. Yes, we're all suffering from "pandemic fatigue", but if my analysis is correct, we're just going to have to suck it up and go for it, otherwise this thing will go on indefinitely. A vaccine, which we may or may not get sometime in the next year or so, may or may not help long term, but we can't put all out eggs in that basket (and don't even get me started on herd immunity).

This does, however, require substantial political will and leadership, and we are just not seeing that from the current crop of conservative premiers in Canada (and the federal government understandably does not want to cross swords with the provinces on yet another major issue).

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