Dispatch from the Front Line: It's our birthday. Please send us money. Also, some news and stuff
So I guess we should actually do some like commentary and analysis so this doesn't feel just like a fundraiser, right? Yeah? Sigh, OK, let's go.
Welcome to your weekend, Line readers. This is a pretty cool dispatch to write. A few days ago, with no particular fanfare, we crossed over into our second year here. Our first anniversary was this week.
This isn’t just a little psychological checkpoint for us. When we got this thing started, we agreed that we’d try it for a year, and if it fizzled, on day 366 (we checked if it was a leap year) we’d wrap it up, leave the posts up as an archive, refund the balance of anyone’s remaining subscription and move onto the next things in our lives.
There’s no need of that. We’ve grown steadily, and best of all, now that we’ve rolled over into our second year, we actually have some real data. Our retention rate is somewhere between 90-95 per cent (as of right now it’s exactly 93.4 per cent, but we’re still waiting on a bit more data). That is enormous. That is fantastic news. And it means we’re going to stay around a while longer.
So, to all our paying subscribers, thank you. To our freebies, well, we love you guys too, but if we may be so bold, if you’re enjoying us enough to read these regularly, and many thousands of you are, can we ask that you sign up and throw us a few bucks? Our rates are reasonable and we can now say with confidence that we’re keeping our readers happy. We’re building something here, and we’re going to keep building. Help us!
And do so knowing you can, if you choose, quit at any time. It happens! We’ve lost some subscribers along the way, and many of them have been kind enough to tell us why. The most common reasons, by far, are financial pressure (we get it) or simply not having enough time to keep up with all that we’re putting out (gosh, do we ever get that, too). A few people have quit in anger over a particular post or contributor, and that’s fine — but we ain’t gonna stop doin’ what we’ve been doin’. Every last one of you has the right to opt out at any time! And if you get angry at us, please do so!
(Our favourite reason given for unsubscribing, by the way, came from a gentleman who had signed up for our monthly payment plan and complained that he was getting frustrated by all the payment charges. We were charging him … monthly. As a monthly subscriber probably should have expected. Oh well.)
Anyway, folks, what can we say? No one bats a thousand and a 90-95-per-cent retention rate is wildly beyond our best-case expectation. It’s a huge vote of confidence in what we’re doing and all we can say is thank you. No, wait, we can say one more thing: if you haven’t subscribed yet, please do so today. At this point, what reason do you have not to sign up? We’re a proven commodity now.
OK, our shameless appeal for cash out of the way, it’s back to the news. And on the federal election front, it’s no news at all. We are still in a holding pattern, along with 40 million of our buddies, waiting to see when the shoe will drop.
It hasn’t yet. But we remain on the alert.
An election now, much to our displeasure (elections are exhausting), makes sense, if you’re the PM. We have no particular inside knowledge beyond the usual veins of scuttlebutt radiating out from Ottawa, but we can read polls as well as the next hack, and … yeah, the polls look good for the Liberals.
We suspect the relative high spirits we’re in right now won’t last. We’ve vaccinated, cases are low, the sun is shining and the city parks, public beaches and cottage country lakes are packed. Good! We’ve all earned this. But fall will come, new variants of COVID may well emerge that set us back on edge and, of more concern to the Liberals, post-crisis bills will start coming due just as we start sitting down and establishing inquiries and panels to investigate how Canada handled the worst international crisis since the Second World War. And the broad contours of that are already clear: pretty well in a few ways, not great but we scraped by in others and really fucking bad in still more. And while the federal Liberals will do their damndest to pretend that all of the really fucking bad stuff is the fault of Evil Conservative Premiers, some of it, alas, lands right at their door.
We eventually landed vaccines, thank God. The Liberals have earned the right to celebrate that — truly. They pulled off something challenging and impressive, and we look forward to the books that’ll get written about this, once document releases and loose lips have made clear how it happened. But there were major failures at the federal level — in planning, in preparedness, in border controls (which we never figured out and essentially just eventually gave up on). Those failures cost lives.
So yeah. Better now than later for the PM.
But things are still volatile out there. We are hopeful we’ve seen the last of COVID, but our election campaigns last five or six weeks. Think of how bonkers the world has been these last two years. How comfortable are any of you that things won’t totally go to ratshit over the next month in a half, in some horrifying but unexpected way? We at The Line at not betting our proverbial farms on that, friends.
But that’s what the PM seems set on doing. Hey, sure. Good luck to him. Just don’t be shocked if that ends up going sideways on him somehow.
Now off to wacky ole' Alberta, which announced that virtually all remaining COVID restrictions will lift next month — including ending asymptomatic testing, and dropping mandatory isolation for those who have tested positive for the disease. As per Deena Hinshaw, the province's public health chief: "When we're looking at the risk that COVID-19 poses to the population, there's been a dramatic shift in the last few months as we've had the great opportunity of large quantities of highly effective vaccine available."
While we at The Line have some reservations about the aggressiveness of our return to normal — and we'll get to those in a moment — anyone who has been following us here will recognize the broad themes of Hinshaw's statements.
As the majority of the population has received one or two doses of a highly effective vaccine, the relative risk that COVID poses to the population as a whole has substantively plummeted. The risk the disease poses to us — and even to unvaccinated children who have always remained comparatively unaffected by COVID for reasons we do not understand — has fundamentally changed. For a heavily vaccinated population, COVID is on par with a seasonal flu.
Now, many people will read those statements and think one of two things: "Wait, isn't that the line Trump tried when he tried to underplay COVID last year?" and "So now you're telling us COVID is not a big deal?"
We will take each objection in turn.
First, yes, Trump did make flu comparisons. They were wrong — COVID is, in general, deadlier than the flu. But that was before we had vaccines. We have vaccines now, and we don't feel the need to waste much more space explaining the power and limitations of these medicines beyond noting, again, that they are about as effective as we could have reasonably hoped.
Secondly, no. Nobody is telling you that COVID-19 is no big deal.
Seasonal flu is no goddamn joke.
Every year, influenza and pneumonia kill an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people, and this is routinely one of this country's leading causes of death.
Let's break that down further; since 2015, between 16 and 23 children between the ages of one and 14 years died of influenza each year.
Not only is seasonal flu serious, seasonal flu is arguably more serious for children than COVID.
In fact, Hinshaw has made this point explicitly.
"For children under 12 in particular, COVID-19 infection is equivalent to or even possibly slightly less risky than something like seasonal influenza. If we look at our last seasonal influenza year of 2019-2020, we had a higher ICU rate for influenza in kids between the ages of five and nine than we've had for COVID-19 throughout the last 17 months."
The flu is more deadly to kids even with an annual flu vaccine that is accessible to children. Meanwhile, have you figured out why we're not vaccinating kids under 12 for COVID? It's because we don't yet know that the risks of the vaccine itself aren't higher than the risks posed to them by COVID.
But the media doesn't cover the flu obsessively every day for months on end; we don't give it catchy names; we don't scare the shit out of our readers about this very serious disease. We don't write heart-rending stories about all of the dozens of innocent young children who die of flu every year.
Dying of the flu is considered tragic, but normal. Dying of COVID-19 is not normal, even though the comparative risks presented by the two diseases in a heavily vaccinated population really is now about the same.
So of course parents are scared about re-opening, and what risks that poses to their unvaccinated children, and the immunocompromised — and we can't blame them. For the last 17 months, we've been pumping readers and listeners with an endless stream of COVID fear porn, and "doctors outraged" headlines so intense that they have resulted in a failed Year 0 attempt at the grounds of the Edmonton legislature led by this guy:
I mean, who are you going to listen to, here? Deena Hinshaw, the public health official you have spent the last year and a half (sometimes ludicrously) lionizing in print and public art murals — or Alberta's very own wannabe Dr. Mahatma Gandhi?
Oh wait, don't ask the Alberta NDP, who is just trying to swim through the "murky relationship" between the province's political leaders and the chief medical officer.
Funny how when Hinshaw calls for greater restrictions, she's just listening to The Science, you dum dums. And when she calls for restrictions to be eased, suddenly she's guilty of vaguely stated murky relations with the government in power.
When anti-maskers call decisions of leaders and public health officials into question, they're conspiracy theorists guilty of undermining faith in our collective institutions. Yet when actual left-leaning parties do it, they're brave truth tellers just trying to prevent the pending Delta death trap from eating your children.
Now, we at The Line happen to think that pulling some of these COVID-19 restrictions — particularly the ones mandating isolation for positive cases — seems ahead of where most of the province is actually at emotionally and psychologically. The shift from "deadly pandemic" to "just another flu" is too sudden for most of us to take in, and we think the fear is a reflection of that whiplash.
However, we also don't think these changes are going to make a significant difference one way or another; contact tracing long ago collapsed, and isolation restrictions were always pretty thinly policed.
But all of this belies the unstated conspiracy behind the reason for this latest round of easements. No one is particularly pleased by them. There was no bloc of libertarians calling for an end to isolation for people currently positive for COVID-19. There is no political constituency for greater easements beyond those already enjoyed, and therefore no political logic for enacting them.
There is therefore no reason to think that Hinshaw isn't fully on board the aircraft carrier, standing triumphant, "Mission Accomplished" banner at her back for the photo op.
God help us, we're going to tell you to listen to a public health official for once. By our accounts, Hinshaw is being straight up. COVID-19 is now an endemic disease. It presents a risk on par with the seasonal flu, and one that we are going to have to live with for the foreseeable future. That's bad enough. There's no reason to make it any worse with hysterics.
A brief aside on a little quip in the CBC Q&A with Hinshaw above. We suggest reading it in full, but in full honesty, we found the questions more telling than the answers. They read more like talking points posed to Hinshaw than technical questions about the public-health logic underpinning her decision. But we were particularly struck by this one:
"Q: What would you say to people who are deeply concerned and embarrassed by yesterday's announcement?"
"Embarrassed" is an interesting choice of words, here. Embarrassed by whom? It's as if part of the objection to easement is rooted in this idea that Alberta is losing face by lifting restrictions, but losing face to what?
Is it possible that a few CBC reporters are more concerned about what their peers in central Canada say about Alberta on Twitter than they are about the actual science that is bolstering Hinshaw's confidence in re-opening? If so, we note: this puts the wrong constituency first.
Nextly, on a note to undermine all our confidence in ourselves, we feel the need to confess our errors and sins.
Back in May, Line columnist and co-founder Jen Gerson wrote a piece analyzing Alberta's aggressive re-opening strategy. She noted that a besieged Jason Kenney had an incentive to be at the vanguard of loosening restrictions — that he was making a bet.
She thought, however, that it was a reasonably safe bet.
"I'd be willing to bet $100 — although perhaps not $1,000 — that as the province re-opens, our current state of exponential decay in case rates will continue until it stabilizes at a low level. I don't anticipate a fourth wave."
Well, she was probably wrong about that, although she is still not terribly alarmed. Since then, the Delta variant took off to a degree she did not anticipate in the U.K.. Daily case rates hit their stride in mid-July and peaked not far off their second-wave high scores.
That's the bad news. Here is why she's still tippling G&Ts on the patio ahead of the imminent federal election call; hospitalization rates in the U.K. did not follow suit with case rates — they're barely a quarter of their second-wave peaks. And even those numbers may have been overstated. Mortality rates remained virtually flat. What this indicates is that Delta does seem to be particularly pernicious and transmissible, but vaccines have defanged the disease. Vaccines will prevent a majority of illnesses, and in those who do get sick despite having two shots, the illness will probably be minor. The U.K.'s health system was not overwhelmed, and its overall cases are now coming down again despite further easing of restrictions.
Canada looks poised to witness a similar kind of pattern: a spike in case rates that doesn't necessarily threaten the health-care system. If it holds, so will Nick Kadysh's article this week: case rates are no longer the most relevant metric by which to judge the COVID situation. What we need to watch are breakouts in vulnerable locales, among vulnerable populations, and spikes in serious illness. Otherwise, head back to the patio.
But then, we were wrong in May. So you could always opt to stay in your house until COVID goes away instead. Good luck with that.
Finally, ending on a note about predictions that have failed to cover themselves with glory, we pin here the latest from the federal public-health authorities. Theresa Tam notes that Canada is steering straight into the maw of a Delta-driven fourth wave — a point already graciously conceded above.
"Ultimately, factoring in the spread of Delta, hospital capacity could be exceeded this fall or winter if more people don’t get vaccinated, the modelling indicates," the story notes, as if our COVID modelling weren't anything other than a cruel joke about the impossible nature of human certainty at this point.
Just so we're clear; at no point in the past 17 months has our health-care system exceeded capacity. Capacity has been stretched, certainly. Non-elective surgeries have been moved, backlogs created, problems were recorded by all. But our health-care system didn't collapse before we had vaccines.
Now that we're leading the world in vaccination coverage, with 80 per cent first dose, and 64 per cent fully vaccinated, now, now we're at risk of a healthcare system collapse that we haven't seen in comparable jurisdictions?
We’re still at a half-rate publishing schedule until the summer ends or the election begins, whichever comes first — please, please let it be the summer ending — but we’ll continue publishing smart, worthy stuff, as we did this week, including Nick Kadysh on how vaccination is changing the math on understanding the risk in future waves of the pandemic, and Ken Boessenkool on why Jason Kenney cannot win an equalization referendum, but he can sure as hell lose one.
And on that note, we remind you that we are desperate for you to send us money, and wish you all a pleasant weekend. Stay tuned for more good stuff next week.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: email@example.com