Sunday, August 8, 2021

The pandemic of false promises

THE COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted almost everyone on Earth ever since it began in late 2019. Many agree it is a significant problem, but few ask the question if one of the biggest problems are the actions and the thought processes of those actually tasked with solving the problem.

In this real-world commentary, I argue that the pandemic "strategy" by our powers that be to do little but enact "temporary" half-measures, throw around blame and indulge in their most nonsensical of their nightmare scenarios has had just as deleterious an affect on the public as the actual pandemic has itself. In this article, I call on those who are consist of the powers that be to end the games, end the nonsense and start doing what we, your taxpayers, are paying you to do- come up with real solutions.

IN the spring of 2000, the Calgary Flames of the National Hockey League made noises about relocating, with the rumoured destination being Norfolk, Virginia. By that time, the Flames’ on-ice product had sagged to the point where they had missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for three straight seasons, meaning attendance at games dropped precipitously. Coupled with a weak Canadian dollar at the time, the Flames felt they could no longer be competitive in Calgary so they sought other options.

That spring, the Flames issued an ultimatum- if the fanbase didn’t buy 14,000 season tickets by the end of June the team would most certainly move. The ultimatum proved successful, as on June 29, the Flames announced they reached their goal of 14,000 season tickets.

This should have meant that the team was assured of staying in Calgary, but when Flames President Harley N. Hotchkiss stepped to the podium to make the announcement, he stated that the team reaching 14,000 tickets was merely “one of the goals” instead of the goal in order for the team to stay in Calgary. A reporter confronted him on this, telling him- rightly- that Flames fans would be upset that they were misled, because they thought- as they were told- if they bought tickets the team would stay, but now it appeared that the team was backtracking on this.

Long story short, the Flames managed to stay in Calgary after all, with the team regaining relevancy a few seasons later when the team went on a run that almost saw them win the Stanley Cup. In the years since, the NHL and its players association managed to institute a salary cap and revenue sharing streams that ensured the Flames’ viability for the long haul.

Despite the happy ending, the Flames’ story should serve as a warning to those handling the current COVID-19 pandemic- get your messaging wrong at your peril.

For the past year and a half, the messaging behind pandemic policymaking has been the same as the Flames’ season ticket drive- “if you do X, we’ll put the pandemic behind us.”

First, public health officials downplayed the disease, telling people “not to worry about it.” We were also told that masks didn’t work, so we shouldn’t buy them.

Then, suddenly, the disease became akin to the Black Death, and lockdowns were ordered.

We were all told then that, “if we just stayed home for a few months, the pandemic will be over”.

A few months later- after previously dismissing them- masks suddenly were in vogue again, and we were told that if we all did “our civic duty” and put on a mask, the pandemic would be under control.

Well…it was annoying…but, the first wave was receding, as the summer wore on, it really did look like the “non-pharmaceutical measures” (NPIs) were working.

Then the fall wave hit, meaning somewhere, someone got it wrong.

Instead of our fearless leaders taking account and perhaps admitting that they may have “reopened” their economies too soon or that they underestimated the virus, or, going further, that maybe we needed different strategies than the NPIs that were used, the blame game began.

“Cases are going up because reckless youths are partying when they shouldn’t be!”
“Cases are going up because people are getting together when they shouldn’t be!”
“Cases are going up because people aren’t wearing their masks and keeping their distance!”
“Cases are going up because those bloody protesters want ‘their precious freedoms’ back!”

 …and so on and so forth.

That there was scant evidence that any of that actually fueled the second wave of the pandemic didn’t cross anyone’s mind. It was an easy narrative as it was a simple message to get behind. Blaming “the selfish” for things going haywire gave the public a sense of moral superiority and a sense of vindication, as it gave “the rule followers” a sense that their efforts weren’t going to waste.

Except the situation was hardly that simple, and the following months bore this out. Governments tried all kinds of “targeted measures” by closing certain businesses and imposing hefty fines on “rule breakers”, but case counts kept rising without any signs of abating.

By the dead of winter, we were back in lockdown again.

Lesson learned, right? If a previous set of strategies didn’t work before, perhaps it was time for different strategies?

Maybe, too, it was time to stop playing the blame game and have some accountability.

COVID-19 isn’t exactly an issue for which there are thousands of books on the subject (at least not yet). It would have been OK our policymakers and other healthcare professionals came out and said, “we got it wrong. We’re still learning about this virus too” because that’s understandable.

Instead, as winter turned to spring in 2021, it was more of the same. The strategies were unchanged, and the blame game was still in full force.

…but, apparently, it was all different now. We had a real “game-changer” that, we’re told, will absolutely, 100%, no doubt, with complete certainty and no chance of failure, will actually end the crisis for good.

The COVID-19 vaccine. Or, well, many of them.

Truth be told, the vaccines that became available actually are wonders and actually do work, extremely well and far better than anyone could have predicted. We were told by policymakers they would be satisfied with vaccines that were only 50% effective.

Instead, we got ones that range in effectiveness from 70% all the way up to 95%. Those numbers have held up extremely well no matter what’s been thrown at them, dramatically lowering hospitalization numbers and deaths no matter what variant du jour is the concern at the moment.

I can say, with 99.99999999999999999% certainty, that the vaccines always will. Some of us may still need boosters down the line, but for most of us, our dosage regimen is sufficient for several years if not a lifetime. It won’t mean that we’ll never get sick- it just means that, if we do, it’ll be just like the common cold, at worst.

Which is what the vaccines are supposed to do. They’re supposed to mimic natural infection, doing for SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) what natural infection does with the other coronaviruses that are in circulation. They don’t make us too sick because we usually catch them in our youth, an option that wasn’t available for many with SARS-CoV2.

If you don’t believe me that the vaccines will work, and work for a long time, take it from the Oxford scientists who actually studied the virus and developed what is now the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Oxford group is on record as saying that should the virus mutate to the point where it would completely evade the vaccines it would almost certainly be rendered unfunctional.

There are also several others for whom you can find out more information, people who are far more trustworthy than the government. I would suggest starting with the Twitter feeds of Chise (sailorrooscout), who actually studies vaccines and frequently posts those studies for all to see, and Professor Francois Balloux, the Director of the University Colleges London Genetics Institute and a frequent contributor in mainstream media.

With that diversion…it should be case closed, right?

There should be no question that the vaccines will work, they’ll do their job and we can end the madness for good. Yeah, we’d still have to be patient with reopening the economy because it will take time to have enough of the vaccine to ensure that everyone who wants one can get one, but, once that point is reached, it’s game over…right?

Or, at least it’s the point where the public no longer has to worry about, because, like with other diseases, COVID-19 can become a disease that is best left for academics to figure out.

Instead, that’s not what we got.

Instead, what we do get are people who seem to do everything they can to prolong the panic. This can range from reasonable worries (“do we worry about vaccinating our children?”) to worries that are understandable though overblown (like worries over the not unexpected but rare side effects of the vaccines) to worries that are, frankly, downright absurd and should be dismissed without a moment’s thought.

Like the idea that unchecked virus growth- especially among the unvaccinated- is going to lead to mutations that get us back to where we were in March 2020 (that’s a practical impossibility). Or that restrictions need to be reimposed on a largely vaccinated population simply because case counts are high, based on the absurd idea that vaccinated people can pose just as much a risk to “the vulnerable” as the unvaccinated do (which is categorically false).

It would be bad enough if this stuff was coming from lay people or even politicians, who might not be so well-versed in how viruses actually work.

However, it’s also coming from healthcare professionals, like Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky, who stated that the vaccinated can spread the disease just as much as the unvaccinated (they can’t), and Vanderbilt Professor William Schaffner, who told CNN that the unvaccinated are “variant factories” (which ignores the fact that even some who are vaccinated can get the disease and also be potential “variant factories”).

These are people who should know better. Even if their concerns are genuine- which I’m sure they are- hearing people who should know better shout absurdities about COVID-19 helps no one and undermines the very effort healthcare professionals have been putting in from the start.

It’s now even beginning to affect policies too, as the CDC justified reintroducing the guidance that says masks should be mandatory indoors with Walensky’s twisted logic. Israel, who once led the world in vaccinations per capita but now still has one million people (as of this writing) unvaccinated, reimposed its mask mandate and started talking about lockdowns again.

The maritime nation of Seychelles, off the coast of Africa, actually went into lockdown in April, despite high vaccination rates and the vast majority of its cases in the unvaccinated.

Then there are places like The Netherlands and the metropolitan area of Kelowna (in the Canadian province of British Columbia) that have again imposed business closures (on health ministers’ favourite whipping boys, the nightlife industry) after reporting “outbreaks” in those establishments (without providing any further, more pertinent details). This despite reasonable vaccination rates, which should mean those moves are not necessary.

I used to think, heading into the fall, that the worst that would happen is the introduction of “vaccine passports”, which have their own multitude of issues but are a far better deal than business closures and can at least allow people (like myself) who “did their part” and got vaccinated to enjoy their lives once again.

While I still think that’s the inevitability, there’s still an air of uncertainty and who knows where any of this will go.

The real frustrating part is that measures we thought were truly and well behind us are still on the table, and unchecked alarmism is doing a great job at destroying the credibility of the vaccines.

Look, I understand there’s a lot of nuances with regards to COVID-19 and that the scientific reality might not always adhere to what I or others want.

However, a year and a half into the pandemic, we’ve reached the point where the nonsense and the panic are just not tolerable anymore.

No matter where you stand on the “COVID-19 spectrum”, it’s undeniable that we’ve all had our lives put on hold and that we’ve given so much only for the return on that sacrifice to be told by the powers that be to sacrifice some more.

The powers that be don’t seem to realize there will be a point where none of us have anything left to give, which will have catastrophic societal consequences far beyond any disease could.

We can avoid it, but a few things need to happen first, all of which centre around reminding our powers that be that we're not giving them our tax dollars just so they can dither, spout empty promises, cry crocodile tears and enact nonsensical half-solutions.

We want real solutions, meaningful ones, and we want them now.

Here's my take:

The first thing that has to happen is that the powers that be have to stop simply fighting misinformation from one side of the spectrum- the “COVID denialists”- and fight back against misinformation from the other side, the “zero COVID” crowd.

Which means pushing back at the next idiot who’s convinced the next “scary variant” is just around the corner and blames the unvaccinated for “creating” them, because it’s just not true.

Not just because shaming the unvaccinated is fruitless, since likely many will just dig in their heels even further and it’ll become even harder to convince them to take up the vaccines, but also because “scary mutation” talk tells the vaccinated that their efforts are in vain, because their future hangs by a thread when it doesn’t.

I do believe there is an urgency in getting as many people- around the world- vaccinated as soon as possible, but not because I’m worried about variants. The virus is going to circulate, probably forever, so new variants will always arise. Getting as many people vaccinated as possible means we blunt their effects, so that the next variant that serves as the “signal” to update the vaccines only causes a spike in hospitalizations and deaths without crippling our healthcare systems. Which in turn buys us time to update them without having to rush them.

Which leads to the next point. Trust the vaccines.

This means that we need to stop freaking out because case counts are rising. Case counts were always terrible indicators of the severity of the pandemic since we never did test the entire population, or even “guesstimated” by doing a random sample, so they never did paint an accurate picture. They’re even worse indicators of the pandemic now that the vaccines have been distributed.

A positive test now is even less likely than before to lead to a hospitalization or even to death. A positive test doesn’t even indicate if someone can even spread the virus anymore, because a positive test simply detects if the virus is in someone’s system. It’s not a measure of infectiousness.

Even if they were, a large vaccinated population means that the vast majority will only experience minor systems and can still go on with their day. So high numbers of positive tests won’t mean that there’s a concerning outbreak.

Of course, here I’ll be told, “what about the hospitals?” Well, if the vaccines work- and they do- hospitalizations should be held in check in a highly vaccinated population, no matter the case count. Considering that most people in the developed world only got fully vaccinated within the last few months, at the very least hospitalizations shouldn’t be a concern for the next year or so, likely longer.

Worst case, in a highly vaccinated population, an uptick in hospitalizations should just be a signal to update the vaccines. It should not unsustainably overwhelm the hospitals.

Which then leads to the next point- maybe it’s time to improve our hospital capacity.

Do a bit of Googling for any place on Earth and you’ll see that, just about everywhere, hospital capacity was an issue even before the pandemic. In my native region, the Canadian province of Ontario, “hallway healthcare” was the subject of a hospitals’ organization’s report in January 2019. Expanding across the whole country, shortly after the swine flu pandemic of 2009, another report suggested Canada was totally unprepared for the next pandemic.

I also found similar articles talking about concerns over hospital capacity in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands- all pre-dating the pandemic.

This is not a new issue. Way back in the mid-‘90s we’ve had healthcare professionals sound the alarm about the need to invest in hospitals, because the Baby Boom generation was, at the time, turning 50.

Now, many Baby Boomers are well into their seventies, and the strains they’ll put on the healthcare system won’t disappear after the COVID-19 crisis clears.

In fact, I always thought COVID-19 was simply the beginning of what’s likely going to be a trend of increasing hospitalizations and deaths because of our aging population. Maybe the next few years won’t have COVID-19’s staggering death toll, but it would not surprise me if the numbers do start to increase into a decades-long trend.

It would make sense, therefore, to invest in our hospitals, not just for future pandemics but because our older population simply needs them.

Lastly…about the unvaccinated.

I know “vaccine passports” are the “in” thing right now, but I think they’re ultimately useless. They’re just like every other “temporary” pandemic measure, since they’ll only be good to increase vaccination rates at which point they’ll plateau.

Furthermore, the longer they’re mandated, the greater the chance someone starts producing fraudulent copies. Which helps no one.

Which leaves mandatory vaccination as the only other option within this mode of thinking. I know why governments are hesitant about implementing that, but if vaccination is so vital for national security, it should be implemented without a moment’s thought.

Even here, though, I’m hesitant about suggesting it. Yes, the more people that are unvaccinated the higher the risk there is to those for whom the vaccines are not effective (which is the real concept behind “herd immunity”- protect everyone that can be protected to protect those who can’t), but the same issue with vaccine passports arise with mandatory vaccinations. Someone will start producing fraudulent certificates, and no one benefits.

This means we’re left with “vaccinate as many as we can and take what we get”. Voluntary vaccination has seen a large uptake anyway- probably more than what is needed to put the crisis on ice- and I think resources are better spent trying understand why those who are not yet vaccinated are not vaccinated and work to overcome those obstacles. If we can.

Otherwise, we just have to accept that certain people won’t take it up.

Where does this leave those who can’t vaccinate or are worried the protection the vaccine offers them isn’t good enough?

It just may be time to accept that in certain businesses and in workplaces that we may need to implement some of the NPIs we used during the pandemic, and accept that certain businesses are just too risky for those worried about COVID-19.

I’m not saying we have to close nightclubs forever or disallow dancing, not have packed venues, limit indoor dining or even require masks in those places. People don’t have to go to a nightclub, a gym or a restaurant, so there’s no point insisting on counterproductive measures in those places.

We would just tell people that, if you’re worried about COVID-19 or any other infectious respiratory illness, avoid those establishments.

In places where the risk-averse would have to go, like to work or on public transit or the grocery store, ensuring there’s masking and there’s enough space for everyone would likely be a good idea. Workplaces are already required by law to make accommodations for their employees, so making accommodations for those who are most at risk for COVID-19 despite vaccination shouldn’t be contentious.

Furthermore, the pandemic has taught us that, in places where we don’t need a crowd we don’t have to have one. Leave the crowds for those who go to the raves or a rock concert- we don’t need them in the supermarket or on the bus.

We can quibble with how a post-pandemic world would look like, but the point I’m making is very clear- it’s time for the nonsense and the madness to stop.

It’s time for the games and the rhetoric and the blame to end.

It’s time for the people we call experts to stop letting their worst imaginations run wild and dream up unrealistic nightmare scenarios and start doing what they’re paid to do- start using their brains and come up with solutions. Real ones that can last and that the public can get behind.

Because it’s time we stop sniping at each other and come together to find that common ground that allows us all to move on and get on with our lives.

I’m not saying that we have to stop being concerned about COVID-19, or that we shouldn’t do anything to make dealing with or treating the disease better than what we have right now.

Far from it. We should always try to make things better. Regardless of the issue.

All I’m saying is that it’s time to stop messing around and start using our heads. Panic is never a good idea during a crisis, but now is best a time as ever to stop fretting and start thinking, because, even if it’s not ideal, we’re in a far better place than where we were even at this time last year.

The pandemic of false promises has to stop. It’s time for the era of real solutions to begin.

-Daniel Arnold

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