Opinion-Policy Nexus

“We are living in a global public health crisis moving at a speed and scale never witnessed by living generations. The cracks in our medical and financial systems are being splayed open like a gashing wound. No matter how this plays out, life will forever look a little different for all of us.” – Dr. Cornelia Griggs, critical care specialist at a 4,000-bed New York City hospital, writing in the New York Times, March 19

There will be many lessons to be learned from COVID-19, and two big ones are already staring us in the face.

First lesson: listen to the scientists and the specialists fighting in the front lines. Second lesson: prepare for the worst, the absolute worst.

The world was caught flat-footed by the coronavirus, in large measure because decision-makers ignored or downplayed the warnings of scientists. U.S. President Donald Trump was (and may still be – who knows?) a science-denier. Canada also has its share of science-skeptics in political office, as evidenced by the nonsensical debate over a carbon tax in last year’s federal election.

Dr. Griggs is no alarmist. She lives with the public health crisis, spending her days and often her nights treating COVID-19 patients. She sees what the failure of foresight and lack of preparation have wrought: “The sky is falling. I say this not to panic anyone but to mobilize you. We need more equipment and we need it now.”

She lists gloves, masks, eye protectors and many more ventilators. To which might added, in context of Canada – where cost-obsessed authorities have been closing hospitals instead of adding patient beds – vastly more intensive-care beds for victims of this and future epidemics.

As scientists in many countries see it, more epidemics or pandemics are inevitable. The most lethal one ever to hit the United States was the 1918 so-called “Spanish” flu, which was responsible for about 675,000 American deaths, according to estimates compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The world population has tripled since then, with 10 times as many people over 65 and 30 times as many over 85. Most of us live in societies where too many people are sardined into too little space. We might as well post a Welcome sign for the next virus.

We are experiencing some of the implications of neglect now. We are learning to self-isolate, to practice a new regimen called “social distancing.” We don’t go to the office or visit friends – it’s too dangerous. We don’t go out for a drink or a meal, because bars and restaurants must be closed. Our downtowns resemble ghost towns and our expressways are miraculously free of traffic at rush hour. It takes a lot of getting used to.

Some political and community leaders are talking about life maybe returning to normal in four weeks or so. They are blowing smoke.

Listen to the scientists. There is a consensus among researchers in several countries, including a team at the University of Toronto, that COVID-19 has not spiked yet – and is not close to spiking. They think it may be about 18 months before the pandemic winds down, by which time, with luck, there may be a vaccine available that could, with luck, prevent a second wave of COVID-19. Cornelia Griggs was letting us down gently when she commented that “life will forever look a little different for all of us.”

What about the next big thing coming down the disaster pike?

I’m thinking of climate change, of global warming. Scientists have been warning us for years that disaster awaits the world unless we change our lives in ways that will make social distancing look like a kindergarten game.

We don’t have 20 or 30 years to start saving the planet. We have perhaps seven or eight years to get it right. Have we faced reality? Not yet! Are we preparing for the worst? Fat chance!

Don’t be a Trump. Listen to the scientists.


Monday, March 23, 2020 - 09:08