Andrew Potter: Winter is Coming
The good news is that lockdowns worked. The bad news is that we seem to be short of better ideas.
THE GOOD NEWS is that the lockdown worked. According to the results of a study from Canada Blood Services, very few Canadians have actually been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
On September 8, the national blood agency released the results of the first phase of its serology survey of over 37,000 blood samples collected in May and the first half of June 2020. The result is that nationwide (excepting the Territories and Quebec), 0.70 per cent of blood donors tested positive for COVID-19. Provincial rates ranged from 0 per cent in PEI to 0.5 percent in B.C., to Ontario, the highest, at 0.96 per cent. A similar study from August by Quebec’s distinct blood service, Hema-Quebec, had the provincial figure at 2.23 per cent.
Both surveys almost certainly understate the true rate. Healthy people are more inclined to donate blood, and it is possible that antibody levels in previously infected donors had dropped below detection levels. But even if the true rate is double what these studies found, it’s far below that of places like New York City, pockets of London and Madrid, or parts of Sweden. In these areas, seroprevalence seems to have stabilized at around 20 per cent of the population, while the previous high case counts and fatalities have dropped like a stone.
Whether or not this is the threshold for herd immunity, or even some sort of partial herd immunity, remains an open question. But what does seem clear is that there are some densely populated areas that were very hard hit by the virus and now seem to be relatively in the clear.
THE BAD NEWS for Canada, at least, is that this means the virus has an enormous amount of sea room in which to gather strength as the second wave approaches. The question of whether we are actually in a second wave yet or not is irrelevant — it’s like asking whether Pluto is a planet or if Bob Dylan can sing. In the meantime, case counts are climbing back to levels not seen since springtime, as the remorseless math of exponential growth reasserts itself.
THE GOOD NEWS is that over the past eight months scientists have learned an enormous amount about this virus. Since those panicky, handwashy, disinfect-everything days of March, we have a much better sense of how it is transmitted. We know better how it works and why. It appears that COVID-19 is not a respiratory disease, it’s a vascular disease of some kind. And all of this has helped give us more effective mitigation measures and treatments, even as the global race for a vaccine stampedes ahead. We’ve quickly become armchair epidemiologists, and this is a very good thing.
THE BAD NEWS is that our politicians don’t seem to have learned much at all. We know the story of how, unlike countries like Taiwan, the federal government ignored pretty much everything it learned from SARS in 2003. They did little pandemic planning, they let PPE stocks expire, they dismantled a world-class pandemic intelligence unit and redeployed the staff to our vaping policy desk.
The battle fog of those early weeks of the pandemic has long since cleared. We’ve understood the basic nature of the fight since early summer, and there has been plenty of time for the government to become utterly seized with the importance of the COVID-19 file. They certainly talk as if that’s the case. The overriding importance of our pandemic response was, recall, the pretext for the prorogation of parliament and this week’s speech from the throne. But instead of a rousing call to national action, what Justin Trudeau delivered was an embarrassing display of reheated campaign promises and partisan gamesmanship.
Provincially, we’re not much better off. The Atlantic provinces are understandably hiding behind their protective bubble, but much of the leadership in the rest of the country is standing dumbstruck like jacklit deer along the Transcanada. Many provinces have put in place DEFCON-style alert levels or phases designed to give the impression that there’s an actual public-health strategy at work, a coherent set of case-load tripwires and response protocols.
But there’s not much behind the curtain of the pandemic response theatre of “Yellow” and “Orange” coded zones. Provincial testing facilities that were chasing away tumbleweeds in late August are now completely overloaded. Contact tracing is taking days or weeks, when it can be done at all. The overall impression is one of chaos and confusion — as if the virus had just arrived and we hadn’t had six months to get our act together.
THE GOOD NEWS is that we are unlikely to see a recapitulation of the incompetence and neglect that fuelled the tragedy in our long-term-care facilities. The big risk now would seem to be the schools, where our kids, their teachers, and by extension all of their families, are being exposed to risks we are still unable to properly judge. But there’s also the merciful fact that kids seem less susceptible to the virus, and seem less prone to passing it on. Our half-hearted efforts at enforcing mask wearing and social distancing will help a bit.
THE BAD NEWS is that summer came, and summer went. Fall is here, winter is coming, and so is the only real tool in the box, a renewed lockdown. Ontario is tightening rules. The Quebec minister of health has asked people to avoid all social contacts for the next 28 days. Things are going to get a lot worse on that front before they get better.
THE GOOD NEWS is that it worked last time.
THE BAD NEWS is that last time the economy was healthy, and our governments weren’t up to their earlobes in debt. And we were on the cusp of spring, not staring down the barrel of winter.
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