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Editorial: Was it worth it?

Patrick Flannery   

Features Business Intelligence canada editorial livelihood pandemic rental

A year on, we can assess whether the pandemic response made sense.

There’s a seemingly well-researched and fair article in the National Post this morning by Tom Blackwell looking at studies from around the world assessing the efficacy of lockdowns in fighting COVID (“They kill jobs, overwhelm treasuries, harm mental health but COVID lockdowns work, science suggests,” March 22, if you want to look it up). It lands, at the time of this writing, just about a year after the first declarations of global pandemic and emergency measures by governments. Over that year, I’ve watched as the currents of opinion on our reaction have split into those who feel the response has been a sad necessity and those who feel it’s been a wrongheaded waste of effort with devastating consequences that far outstrip the benefits (with individuals at all points in between, of course). I’ve certainly participated in lively debates with some who view the governments’ approach as a blend of incompetence and anti-business bias. In their telling, we would have done just as well to give special protection to long-term care homes and hospitals and let everyone else go about their business. 

The article throws some cold water on this. The preponderance of the research done since the start of the pandemic indicates that lockdowns that close businesses, prohibit gatherings and generally prevent people from moving around have been the most effective method for preventing spread of the virus and sharp rises in cases. There’s correlation between places that imposed lockdowns late, unevenly, temporarily or not at all and bad results in terms of infection rates and deaths. In one place the article points out that, had we taken Florida’s approach, we would have seen an additional 33,000 deaths in this country. For reference, Canada has as of today around 22,000 COVID deaths total.

Caveats abound. What is a lockdown? Even inside Canada we’ve seen diversity in the specific rules. Places that locked down early with strong testing and tracing regimes (South Korea, Australia) were able to return to very light lockdown measures quickly without a return of mass infection. Was it the lockdowns or was it the masks? The early confusion around mask-wearing may have had a devastating effect. A few of the studies found weak or no evidence that lockdowns helped. And one lockdown critic from Alberta estimated the collateral damage in terms of lost “wellbeing years” to be five to 10 times greater than the overall health benefits of stopping the pandemic. That seems hard to agree with, but it’s worth asking ourselves if all this was worth it.

My answer comes from a thought experiment. If you were living in a small village in, say, India, and a man-eating tiger was killing your neighbours, would you shoot it? Or, out of concern for preserving an endangered species and preventing an ecosystem collapse that would imperil the long-term future of the village, would you refrain? I think the common-sense answer to that question is to deal with the present threat, understanding that a lot can happen over time and there will be opportunities to deal with the fallout later. 

The fallout, in the case of the pandemic, has in many cases been severe damage or even destruction of our businesses. We’ve met, with middling success, what I consider to be a moral duty to save as many lives as we can. But now our thoughts must turn to what will be done to repair the damage to so many lives and livelihoods.   

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