When Enough is Justifiably Enough
After a year spent traveling regularly between several cities in two nations, I have concluded that regulatory OVERreactions are likely to be far more costly in the long run than the deaths borne by those who avoided shutting their economies down, wholesale. Here’s why.
I have spent the entire pandemic traveling more than most, taking planes, trains and automobiles nearly every other week without fail since it began, ostensibly so that I could continue to be both “dad” and “husband” undiminished within a family split by national borders. During this interim, I have observed life on the ground in Florida, California, New York, Connecticut, Quebec and Ontario — each one multiple times, and some of them bi-weekly.
Throughout, because of the risks I knew I was taking, I voraciously read everything I could about infection and mortality rates, demographics, human physiognomy, medicine, pathology, air flow, surfaces, history, foods and supplements, and behaviors.
I wanted to parse the noise from the facts, because the world was screaming in reaction to things it mostly didn’t understand but feared regardless, because of what news outlets and politicians were telling them, in jarring terms.
What I learned from all that, and by observing people living vastly different “realities”, has been swimming around in my head for a while now, as I have tried to reconcile the economic, psychological and physiological impacts of each “world” of policies, not only over the short term, but more pressingly, over the long haul.
I have slowly come to the conclusion that the costs of overreaction and largely indiscriminate lockdowns are at least as high as those of blatant disregard for safe behaviors. Why it remains the case — more than one year on — that governments are still so far apart in their policies, escapes all reason, except one. The only unifying characteristic I can concoct is a political one: that “as long as I choose the route of contained political fallout, I will stand a chance of being re-elected.”
Policy follows politics.
The pandemic response in most places on Earth has, in my view, less to do with saving lives than with re-election. If it didn’t, then science would drive policy, and cities and nations would be more or less aligned behind a science-endorsed, mutually recognizable human ecosystem.
That’s not happening.
How We Got Here
For a period, early on, the world ground to a halt, as most of us held our collective breath out of fear for what none of us yet understood without the benefit of science and observation to guide our policies and choices. But slowly, over time, as we triaged the sick and dying while studying and building a contextual understanding of a pathogen’s patterns and reach, things shifted. The weapons we built — of knowledge, protocols and medicines alike — have been turning the tides more and more every day, allowing (parts of) the world to confidently resume at least some sense of normalcy, while vaccines and viruses both work their way through the human population.
To Lock Down or Not to Lock Down
I’ve already written about this, comparing Toronto with New York City. I won’t repeat the story here. But, the nut of it is this: the collective appetite of the voters — not death itself — has driven political decisions with regard to regulations in each place, among others. In Miami today, as I learned when I visited for a few days last month, everything is open, and no more than a small portion of residents are wearing masks in public. In New York, schools, retail and restaurants are all open, the only limits being related to indoor capacity. And by stark contrast to these two, the city of Toronto just returned to full lockdown, after timidly loosening a few of its draconian restrictions for a whopping six days last week, during which a tiny handful of pale, emotionally frayed, winter-and-COVID-weary Canadians “risked dying” to have a meal outside, under a heat lamp.
My wife and I ate out nearly every night that week, at turns with and without our children.
We shared four meals with Torontonian friends in blistering succession, as my wife — a healthcare executive whose own mother spent her career as a virologist — leapt at the chance to feel human again. During these short-lived meals, the most memorable comment I heard came from my cousin, who was decidedly unreconciled to the idea of sitting down in public with friends, although we were outside in the sunlight, and at least two meters from the nearest diner. After he finally took off his mask, he said, “Ontario has really f*cked with my nervous system. It’s made us seriously afraid.”
Another friend of mine — a Torontonian native who relocated to Salt Lake City before COVID broke, recently returned home to see the wife from whom he’s been mostly separated for a year, across borders. Arriving in Toronto just last week, he shot off a flurry of texts to me, incensed by having been forced into quarantine at an airport hotel where is now forbidden from opening his door, other than to accept thrice-daily food deliveries, just like jail, in spite of the fact that he is fully vaccinated. In our exchange, after I asked how long he’d be quarantined there, my normally mild-mannered and patient pro-Canadian friend let fly, “Not sure at this point. I feel like getting on a plane and heading back to Utah,” where life is sane.
There were also expletives…
A recent New York Times article titled Elderly, Vaccinated and Still Lonely and Locked Inside tells of fully vaccinated nursing home residents who, caught within a punishing regulatory climate seemingly either ignorant or dismissive of global scientific opinion — let alone respectful of the idea of self-determination — are rapidly withering away while cordoned off from the outside world. These people — the most prone group to the ravaging effects of the virus, but now fully vaccinated against it — are comparing their lives “to those of prisoners and caged animals.” The most heart-wrenching words in the article say it all:
“What, exactly, am I being kept alive for?”
There have been over 25,000 studies on the outdoors and infection that have collectively found just 6% of cases resulted from outdoor gatherings. All of these resulted from dense crowds at concerts and rallies. Just two co-located individuals, well over a year ago in China, now, among the 131,000,000 who have contracted the virus worldwide, did so outdoors without being in a crowd. That’s one in every 65.5 million.
Lord knows what they were doing.
Back at home in Toronto, nerves are near the breaking point. In the nursing homes, per the New York Times article, a majority of residents have experienced a marked decline in cognitive function and emotional wellbeing, while half have experienced physical declines, as well. It’s not just them. Famously rigid Torontonians are now snapping at anyone daring to come within 2m of their bodies. I’ve been yelled at more times than I can count — far more than before COVID, though I’ve got stories there, too. The fact that I’ve come to expect being berated at least every other outing is, in itself, sadly telling.
When one is consistently viewed as a weapon while walking in one city, while being simultaneously ignored or bumped into in another, one can’t help but ask, how is it possible that these things are playing out within the same global context?
Loosening the regulatory reins on anything has been deemed to be just too risky for Torontonian politicians to consider. What if someone were to die while outside “on their watch”? What would that do to sitting legislators’ re-election campaigns?
In Toronto, outdoor dining, much like all public places that support outdoor activities, in playgrounds, hiking trails and parks, remain strictly verboten. It’s not surprising. Just a few months back, Ontario — unlike anywhere else in North America — mandated the closure of its ski hills. You know, those places where everyone is wrapped up like a mummy in open, windy places sparsely populated with people hurtling past one another quickly well past 2m apart, where it is almost assuredly impossible to get sick.
But the Numbers Support the Lockdown, Right?
Sadly, I don’t think so. Yes: as compared with New York City, Miami and Toronto both see less death, even today. But how much, exactly, matters. That’s because it would be short-sighted not to ask ourselves whether it is worth the economic, psychological and physiological destruction that lockdowns elicit, not only over the near term, but for many, the long one.
In NYC today, according to widely available COVID-19 trackers, 48/100,000 people are contracting COVID-19, of which 0.74/100,000 are dying. In Miami, it’s 45/100,000 infected, and 0.54/100,000 dead. And in Toronto, 35/100,000 are being infected, while 0.27/100,000 are dying. If we extrapolate those numbers over each city’s entire population, Miami’s “all doors open” policy should result in 5 fewer deaths over New York’s own, for the current period; while in fully locked down Toronto, 14 lucky people should also escape death, when contrasted against those in mostly operational New York.
Fourteen humans. Out of the 115,000 who “normally” die, each non-pandemic year.
And so: I have to ask myself a number of questions. The first is: Is it worth the cost?
Let’s leave that one alone for now, and let the other questions tease out an answer. The second question is: How many deaths in nursing homes will be accelerated due to the lockdown?
I’ve already answered that one, in part. A significant share of cities’ and nations’ restrictions were sold as safeguards for each’s most vulnerable residents — the elderly — against the risk of dying. And yet, in a bitter twist of irony, the majority of that demographic’s deaths are being hastened in the process. By how much? Time will tell, as we conduct post-mortem mathematical autopsies.
The third questions is: How many hard-hit or failed businesses will send some families into tail spins that will take years to reverse, if at all?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the impact of the pandemic on the labor force is “unprecedented”, because for the first time since these things were recorded, this recession is underpinned not only by a reduced demand for services, but also for the disruption of the labor supply. It warns that “Closures of in-person schools and childcare facilities have the greatest impact on the labor supply of parents. Childcare demands are likely to impair parents’ ability to return to their previous levels of participation and hours. Even if the economy at large expands vigorously, parents may be slow to fully return to paid work, and this may erode their employment prospects when or if they finally do return.”
In other words, when the immediate health risk is deemed over, its deleterious impacts may — and likely will — be long-term.
A fourth question I have is: How many more spouses will fall victim to domestic abuse, and what toll will that take on their lives?
A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported a “Pandemic within a pandemic” when evaluating domestic abuse. It cites lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, furloughed or forced remote workers, and closed schools as all having contributed to a surge of domestic violence in the United States, and a corresponding drop in calls and pleas for help and services, as the abused have no way of safely doing so. The article reports that one in 4 women have reported being abused, and one in 5 have been raped, according to the CDC.
It’s not just an American problem. It’s a human one.
Given that every single year, 115,000 Ontarians die from something, are the lockdowns worth the increase in abuse that it triggers?
A fifth question I’ve mulled is: How will lockdowns and forced sedentary living impact people’s physiological wellbeing?
Medical News Today reported on the “dramatic increase in unhealthful lifestyle changes” at the hands of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns. Citing the journal Obesity, it reported weight gains in 33% of previously obese people, 21% of overweight ones, and 25% of formerly “healthy weight” people all impacted by lockdowns. Sleep disruption was reported as one of the most significant changes, along with trouble concentrating, increased anxiety and fear, and increased consumption of alcohol, smoking and other drugs.
Given that obesity was already the world’s number one killer, about which I wrote in January, what impacts will lockdowns have on exacerbating those who die an early death at the hands of restrictions that trigger epigenetic illnesses, let alone fatal outcomes?
I’ll poke the bear here: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has determined that 78% of American COVID cases that ended in ventilation or death were borne by people who were obese. I’m no fan at all of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently ignited a Twitter storm about this, in order to [inexplicably] blame Dr. Anthony Fauci for American obesity. Huh?! But she was right about one thing: if we really wanted to improve outcomes, we should tackle the obesity epidemic, which means regulating and overhauling the food system, because in doing so, we could’ve saved far more lives than we have by locking cities down, while destroying countless lives in the process.
The answers to all of these questions are nuanced, of course, and each one can elicit strong debate on either side. What we could probably agree on is that the number of lives lost to COVID-19 will be fewer than those that will be shortened from their otherwise natural course, due to the ultimate impacts of the pandemic, down the road. We might also agree that the number of lives negatively impacted over the long term will greatly outnumber those actually lost.
Mortality is just the tip of the iceberg. While the virus was made by nature, the further decimation of human wellbeing at the hands of our own actions is fully man-made, and within our sphere of control.
In other words, there are costs on both sides, and in my view, the costs of shutting down as Ontario has done in defiance of increasingly lucid science, are too high.
When these draconian measures are indiscriminately applied, such as the imprisonment of all elderly and travelers, vaccinated or not, and the banning of outdoor salves to frayed nerves and the decimated retail, food, beverage and hospitality markets — in spite of the overwhelming lack of scientific support for it — are frankly criminal. They stem from political agendas, because while one can count the dead, it is nearly impossible to numerate the future deaths it will cause, let alone significant long-term negative impacts like job loss, domestic abuse, nutritional illnesses, decreased mental health, or diminished academic performance.
And so, the politicians will claim victory no matter what, while wringing their hands over the “unfortunate but unavoidable” impacts to saving constituents from an even worse fate.
Because of this, political hopefuls need do only one thing: whatever keeps them elected. And in Toronto, that means locking people indoors, “to hell with the future costs” of doing so.
As I sit in New York City writing this, with my daughter on a nearby sofa, while simultaneously missing my wife and other children in Toronto, I, would be lying to myself if I said that my friend Cal’s words didn’t resonate.
For thirteen months now, since the pandemic overwhelmed my home in New York City, turning it into the global epicenter of viral death, I have heeded only my own intuition and sense-making apparatus — buoyed by science, reason and the control I could exert over my own actions, in consultation with my family, and their own stomachs for risk. So far, I have escaped infection, although I have moved around continuously without stopping, in crowded airplanes, trains, subways and bustling streets; through thronging protests like BLM and thousand-strong celebrations like Biden’s win. I have done all of it as much as any host city would allow it, while taking reasonable precautions as each context influenced it.
Just two days ago, I landed my first shot of Pfizer’s vaccine, up in a Bronx hospital. In three weeks’ time, I will join the fully vaccinated, and while it is entirely possible to contract the virus in spite of this, it will become a near-impossibility that I will die from it, or even be hospitalized.
But here’s the thing: pre- or post-vaccine, my own actions won’t change. What they will continue to do is to be guided by science and reason, and then further limited only by the laws of the communities in which I find myself resident. Until Canada comes to its senses and allows its residents to salvage the scraps of a life they once enjoyed — one that includes robust employment and social exchange — its citizens will suffer needlessly, in my view.
Following a year spent in a half-dozen urban centers with largely irreconcilable “realities” at play, I have no other conclusion to offer, but these: Follow the science, always; not the politicians or media. Filter out the noise of the panicked and skittish, or tamp down your own rhetoric, so as to avoid dragging one another down with reciprocally amplifying fear. And lastly, apply a modicum of trust in people to self-govern, knowing that in doing so, you preserve the right to choose your own reaction, according to your comfort level. This is critical because each individual’s situation is different, and their actions may well make the difference between their own long-term health, and devastation.
To those who, after a year-plus of onslaught, still aren’t doing these things?
Enough is enough.