Risky COVID-19 choices coming, and there’s no dodging them

Our leaders face tough decisions. There are none without severe costs to people or our society

Saskatchewan reported an additional six confirmed cases of COVID-19 today, while Manitoba has one. | Getty Images

Choices have to be made about how to deal with COVID-19. None of those choices are going to be easy.

And nobody’s likely to get it “right.”

But our planet’s leaders face an excruciating set of choices on how to cope with the dual risks of disease deaths for humans from coronavirus and permanent damage to workers, businesses and society as lockdowns ravage the economy. Unfortunately those two classes of risk are mutually incompatible, with stronger protections for human health (in the short term) leading to much great risks to jobs, businesses and the fabric of society, while a stronger protection of jobs, businesses and social structures will lead to a greater number of deaths for COVID-19.

Yet again I’m delighted to not be a political leader that needs to make the tough choices in this awful situation, and I expect most of you share that feeling with me.

Some people are talking about keeping our societies in a lockdown until December, by which time some are guessing that a vaccine should be available and distributed. That’s a massive risk to our economy, with little Canada already recording over one million job losses and tens of millions occurring around the globe. Just yesterday a Winnipeg bus manufacturer announced 3,000 job cuts. I’m in Winnipeg, but I can’t tell you what’s going on in the city because my family and I have been in self isolation for seven days after arriving back from a Mexican vacation last week. One thing I can tell you, there are no cars passing by my house right now, and it’s the start of rush hour. I live on a busy road.

U.S. President Donald Trump has incurred much wrath for suggesting he’ll tell everybody to go back to work in less than two weeks time. Indeed, the man does seem to have been a bungling boob from the beginning of this crisis, downplaying risks, encouraging risky behaviour and appearing to view the disease as a political challenge rather than a threat to his people’s health. It’s likely the disease will spread far and wide in the U.S. because of the denialism he and his like encourage. I haven’t heard any health or epidemiology expert who believes humanity can get on top of controlling this virus by Easter, as Trump is hoping for.

On the other hand, those who see this as a “people versus the economy” situation don’t understand what the economy is. I’ve seen so many comments from people suggesting caring about “the economy” means caring about corporations, business and one-percenters rather than caring about people. But as I tweeted yesterday,  “I’m in favour of the self-isolation and #flattenthecurve approach, but all this ‘people versus the economy’ talk is misguided. The economy is the people. People are the economy. Ask a parent or caregiver who just lost their job.” I expect most of you agree with me, especially because as farmers your business is your home, and your family home is a business. You can’t divide the two without fundamentally re-engineering your life. If hundreds of thousands of small businesses across Canada go bust, millions of Canadians will have no jobs to go back to.

“Flatten the curve” makes sense because we need time for the medical system to refocus itself for a massive effort to control this coronavirus, we need time to manufacture thousands of respirators for seniors and people like me with lung conditions (mine is asthma) who will do very poorly with this particular virus, we need time to test enough people to find out who has it, who doesn’t and who is presumably now exposed and immune, and we need time to develop and distribute a vaccine.

But how much time will give us enough medical system capacity to handle the impact of this virus while allowing us to begin to bring the non-government economy back online? That’s the tough choice for government and political leaders. If we wait until everybody has been vaccinated, that’s likely to cause another Great Depression. That could have a worse human impact than letting a tiny percentage of people like me get seriously ill or die. Mass unemployment, bankruptcy and despair will kill people. Leaders are going to have to send our societies back to work before everybody has been immunized against COVID-19, in all likelihood.

Trump looks like he’s playing with the idea of sending people back to work way, way too early. That’s one end of the spectrum. The other is saying we need to wait until the end of 2020 or later in order to be safe going back to work, school, coffee shops, playgrounds and parks. Politicians are going to have to pick at the point at which this disease crisis has peaked and after which we can begin easing up on the restrictions we’re sensibly imposing upon ourselves. I’m guessing that peak will be by June, and that in July or August we can begin “normalizing.” But my guess is no better than the next guy’s, so it’s just another bit of speculation thrown up there amongst all the other blather about something we’re all thinking about.

Farmers are being hurt by this crisis. Prices have been hit and deliveries to and from the farm are becoming difficult, but crops can be grown. That’s a blessing in this time of anxiety and woe. Farmers are already preoccupied with the intense demands of the pre-seeding period, and once they’re seeding most won’t look up much until they’re done spraying in June. The world might look different by then. If the crisis is still on, they’ll quickly have to turn their attention back to harvest once we get into August. It’s great to have real, practical work to do, even if the future looks grim. A million Canadians already don’t have that “work in hands” situation to distract them from the gloom, nor an isolated home in which to wait out this thing. They’re sitting at home, unemployed, perhaps unable to pay their rent or mortgage, wondering how to support their families.

Spare a moment for our nation’s politicians as they try to sort out how to protect the most lives possible, both from COVID-19 if they don’t do enough, and from a possible depression if they do too much. They’re balancing awful risks, and easy answers don’t exist.


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