On June 30 2021 I received my second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, thus marking what I hope is, for me at least, a beginning of the end of the pandemic. Maybe I’ll post some more follow-ups, but for now I thought I’d go over some of my earlier posts and offer an initial attempt at a personal retrospective on a remarkable global event.
At no time did I feel any anxiety over COVID-19. This was mainly for two reasons. In the first place, the fatality rate for COVID-19, at least in its initial iterations, was under 1% for those under the age of 65. The majority of deaths in the early days were the result of outbreaks in retirement/nursing homes. At one point the average age of people dying from COVID in B.C. was reported as being 88, which is older than the normal life expectancy in this country by quite a bit. Now obviously I don’t want to diminish any unnecessary deaths but this suggested to me that there was no need for anyone in a low-risk group to panic.
The second reason I didn’t feel anxious was the lack of any personal impact. Within the first year of the pandemic the media were reporting how “everyone” now knew someone who had died of COVID. I didn’t. Even today I don’t know anyone who died of it. I don’t know anyone who even had it. In fact, I only know one person who knows someone who had it. Maybe I was just lucky, but given the number of people I talked to about this I don’t think I was that much of an outlier. So for me, and almost everyone I know, COVID remained something that I read or heard about on the news but that I had absolutely no experience of.
What about the response to COVID? I’ve said before that we were lucky this was such a mild pandemic, as we could learn a lot that might help us deal with the next one. What lessons might we take from what we’ve been going through?
Scientists did their job in coming up with a vaccine on schedule. In the first days of the pandemic all of the experts I heard gave a timeline for how long it would take for a vaccine to be developed and when it would be available that turned out to be accurate. If anything the vaccine might have even arrived slightly ahead of time.
The medical establishment gets mixed marks, mainly for sending so many mixed signals. In Canada there was endless waffling over the status of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Then there was debate over how soon one should get a second dose. Follow the manufacturers’ recommendations? Or would a longer wait actually be better? I still don’t know what the answer is. And what about mixing vaccines? Good, bad, or of no real consequence? It seems to me we might have expected clearer guidance on these matters. Meanwhile, why did it take so long — over a year! — for it to finally be acknowledged that the chances of getting COVID outdoors, aside from attending crowded gatherings like sports events or political rallies, was nearly impossible? Even in the first months of the pandemic I never wore a mask outside, thinking just on the grounds of common sense that it was useless. I wasn’t going to get COVID just by walking past someone. And yet wearing a mask outdoors still seems to be a sort of virtuous fashion statement for many, even in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no one about, as does the annoying habit of running to the other side of a street to avoid passing someone on the sidewalk. This is taking hygiene theater to an extreme, and in a way that sends a confusing message. Are such people saying that they’re infected and that we should avoid them? I don’t think that’s what they mean, but it’s the most logical interpretation for their behaviour.
I wonder how much of this acting out will change in the months to come. In an earlier post I referred to the split between double-maskers and anti-maskers. Apparently there is another group known as ultra-maskers, who are defined as individuals who are going to continue to wear masks, everywhere, for the rest of their lives. This suggests a real mental illness.
I’m not a fan of the government’s handling of things. The poorly timed openings and re-openings were only part of it. The rollout of the vaccine also struck me as chaotic and divisive. Six months ago I even described it as a disaster. Who was an “essential” worker? Somebody delivering for Amazon? I knew home care workers who weren’t considered as being on the front line. A neighbour in his mid-80s couldn’t get a shot while in hospital because he was “only” in for surgery and not in long-term care (he ended up having to stay in the hospital for two months, unvaccinated). “Racialized” groups were at the front of the line for vaccines, but what is a “racialized” group anyway? It sounds like a political or sociological label. How arbitrary were the various age cut-offs? Was there much evidence that you were more at risk at 65 than at 60?
A lot of this made no sense to me. If COVID had been a more deadly pandemic I don’t think people would have responded well to it at all. Then throw in the jumble of pharmacies and vaccine pop-ups whose sporadic supply issues and “first come, first served” model made the whole business of vaccination into a lottery. It’s great that it all worked out well in the end, but when I found out from a friend that most people living in Buffalo, New York had their second shot before I’d even been able to make an appointment for my first, I’ll admit I felt more than a bit of frustration at how we were doing in this country.
The public response was disappointing. A significant percentage of people, though by no means a majority, rejected vaccines entirely. There was initial panic, leading to lots of irrational behaviour. Remember the run on toilet paper? Or how much a box of medical masks cost in March 2020? Meanwhile, I saw little, really no, evidence of people “coming together.” Instead there was ignorance, confusion, anger, and paranoia. I consider myself lucky to have only been yelled at twice in the last eighteen months for getting too close to someone (both times while walking past them in a grocery store aisle, while masked).
The fallout will be enormous. Much greater, I believe, than the political and economic wreckage from the 2008 financial crisis (and that was bad enough). I wrote about all this a year ago and I haven’t seen anything to make me change my mind about what I said then. Basically the pandemic was another case of the rich getting richer and the poor being wiped out. There are two economies. As Warren Buffett recently observed, “many hundreds of thousands or millions of small businesses have been hurt in a terrible way, but most of the big companies have overwhelmingly done fine.” For the past year the stock market boomed and house prices continued to soar while small businesses closed. More inequality and resentment coming up! What could go wrong with that?
Shifting focus a bit, there are two negatively-affected groups in particular that I don’t think have been getting enough attention.
In the first place, the closing down of hospitals for all but emergency procedures has created a scary backlog in things like cancer treatment and any surgery that could (but really, really shouldn’t) be delayed. This is having a huge impact on people’s lives that I’ve been witness to, resulting in a lot of extra suffering that will continue to be felt for years to come. As I said, I was never worried about catching COVID. But I count it a blessing that I didn’t get sick with something else in the last year and a half. I would have been screwed.
As a corollary to this I want to flag a related and equally worrying pandemic development. Doctors stopped seeing people for regular check-ups over the past year, instead getting by with “virtual” consultations (phone calls) that basically only addressed the most urgent situations. I have heard that this may be a new model moving forward, and even one preferred by many people. If so, it will be a disaster, and I say that with no hesitation. Hands-on, physical exams are absolutely necessary to catch a lot of medical problems before they get any worse. To take one example, a PSA test is no substitute at all for a digital rectal exam when it comes to catching prostate cancer early. I can’t count the number of people I’ve known who have had cancers, of all sorts, discovered on routine check-ups. People wanting to switch over to remote doctoring because it’s quick and convenient shouldn’t be under any illusions as to what they’re going to be losing and what the consequences are going to be.
The second affected group are schoolkids and what UNESCO has dubbed the “shadow pandemic” of “education disruption” (you can read more about this in an excellent article in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s by Sarmishta Subramanian). I didn’t think the educational system was ready to switch to online learning, and it wasn’t. From what I’ve seen just over the course of the last couple of months, it never really got up to speed. Top students, those most, privileged, disciplined and motivated, have managed. They usually do, and there’s no need to worry about them. But for everyone else (which is to say, the overwhelming majority of students) it’s been nearly two years down the drain. I don’t blame the teachers. I met some new teachers who had just graduated before COVID struck and I can’t imagine how at sea they felt being thrust into such a situation. But based on the online classes I saw, and the students I spoke to, “school” this past year was a total waste.
In sum, if we can look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a test I don’t think we did very well. What’s worse, I have little faith that we’ll do any better when the next pandemic strikes. And it will.