In March, people were told to stay home and stay put to avoid the coronavirus. We thought everyone was vulnerable and just about anyone could die. Then last month we began to learn that as many as half the population might get infected by COVID-19 and not have symptoms.
People also learned that the vast majority who really need to be protected were the elderly and unhealthy. Even some 85-year-olds testing positive were asymptomatic. Yet, Prime Minister Trudeau in late April, continued to say that the economy and society needed to lockdown for “some time.”
Why is widespread unemployment not as important as saving one person from a COVID-19 death? I am not being callous. It is not a valid argument to say we must do more than necessary to save one life from this virus when that way of thinking neglects the pain, suffering and deaths of those caught up in the lockdown. As University of California professor Robert Arnott pointed out: “If the only goal of government is to minimize deaths, then the first step would be to prohibit people from driving cars and abolish swimming pools, amusement parks and bacon.”
The reason they aren’t banned, he said, is because society has decided that the number of people who rely on transportation outweighs deaths on a highway.
A lockdown of the economy has its own health risks. Noted Arnott: “You cannot crush an economy without having a significant degree of human misery and even deaths, not counting the loss in dollars of wealth and income.”
Based on a Taiwanese study, even a short recession can have deadly effects. For Canada, every 1 per cent rise in unemployment would lead to 370 suicides. The federal government expects that the unemployment rate will rise by seven per cent, largely due to COVID-19, by year end. That would mean 2,590 deaths (although that could be mitigated or delayed by current emergency funding).
But there would be more deaths than that. While the unemployed are told to suck it up, get out of the park, stay home and watch Netflix, their health suffers. Among the unemployed, there is a significant rise in drug and alcohol use. The unemployed between 50 and 75 are 35 per cent more likely to suffer a heart attack.
And what about the very sick? There are millions of adult Canadians who need medication for cancer, heart disease and diabetes, to name a few. Don’t their deaths count if they run out of necessary medicine as supply chains run dry.
The United States has already recorded deaths due to critical care ignored to accommodate COVID-19 patients, according to Dr. Scott Atlas, former chief of neurology at Stanford University Medical Center.”An estimated 80 per cent of brain surgery cases were skipped. Acute stroke and heart attack patients missed their only chances for treatment.”
At some point the risks of saving every life from COVID-19 becomes the cure that is worse than the disease.
So what should we do? The former head of the department of biostatistics, epidemiology, and research design at Rockefeller University in New York City, Dr. Knut Wittkowski argues that a lockdown to avoid COVID-19 actually makes things worse because it prolongs the development of “herd immunity,” which is the only weapon in “exterminating” the novel coronavirus — outside of a vaccine that could take 18 months to produce.
His solution would be to focus on shielding the elderly and sick, while allowing the young and healthy to associate with one another in order to build up immunities. Says Wittkowski: “It’s very important to keep the schools open and kids mingling to spread the virus to get herd immunity as fast as possible, and then the elderly people, who should be separated, and the nursing homes should be closed during that time, can come back and meet their children and grandchildren after about four weeks when the virus has been exterminated.”
Herd immunity would stop a “second wave” in the fall. Dr. David L. Katz, president of True Health Initiative and the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, agrees. Writing in The New York Times, Katz said that the lockdown fight against COVID-19 could be worse than the virus itself.
How quickly we open the economy also depends on how likely we are to die from COVID-19. Stanford University reported on April 22 that according to real data from New York State, the chances of dying from the virus is about 0.1 to 0.2 per cent. Half of all deaths in Canada are in long-term care facilities, meaning the overwhelming majority of people do not have a significant risk and can go to work.
Patrick Meagher is the editor of Farmers Forum newspaper.