Why do I feel apprehensive as the pandemic lockdown lifts?

I should be thrilled at the lifting of the pandemic. Instead, I feel a little uneasy.

image: InfoWorld

I’m not the only one. In a recent survey of Canadians by the polling firm Leger, 52 per cent said they fell somewhat anxious about returning to what life was like before the novel coronavirus.

Young people felt even more apprehensive. Those aged 18 to 24 showed the highest levels of unease at 68 per cent.

We’ve lived with it so long with it that this way of life now feels familiar.

It took a little getting used to but I’m comfortable wearing a mask. In the cold weather of winter, it actually provided some warmth.

At the grocery store, the shopping carts have all been sanitized. Added staff have been hired to wipe down freezer handles and any other surfaces that people touch. Security staff ensure that everyone is wearing a mask. “Have a nice day,” they cheerfully tell me as I exit.

We now know that all that wiping down isn’t necessary given that the virus is spread by expelled droplets and aerosols and not contact. Still, it’s reassuring and helps make us feel safe.

But it’s probably just theatre.

Every Loblaw store, including the ones in Kamloops that go by a different names, are doing increased sanitization including frequent deep cleaning of all areas of the store.

“In fact, we go above and beyond what was required,” said Loblaw director of corporate affairs, Mark Boudreau, adding that some of the grocery chain’s COVID-19 cleaning protocols might become permanent.

But experts say that it’s time to move past “hygiene theatre” that give people a sense of security and protection but are actually unlikely to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission.

Then there is the environmental impact of all those disposable wipes, the cost of disinfecting supplies, and the burden on restaurant and retail employees to maintain strict COVID-19 cleaning measures, are further reasons to start being pragmatic – and stop wiping down groceries and mail.

Sure, it may be “hygiene theatre” but I worry that the lack of concern for hygiene after the pandemic could lead to more transmission of viruses. After all, this year’s flu season practically disappeared.

And what will talk around the dinner table be like in our post-pandemic future?

Leger polled Canadians and asked what they discuss at the dinner table. One out of five talked about COVID-19; five times as much as they talked about Canada’s perennial topic –the weather.

For those over the age of 65, one out of three talked about COVID-19 at the dinner table. Understandable, when you consider the higher risk for older Canadians.

What will we talk about around the dinner table once the pandemic is over? Maybe we’ll be at a loss for words.

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” said LP Hartley in his novel.

The future is a foreign country. It will unlike any future since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. We will do things differently there, but in what way?

Unlike the past, the future is yet to be inhabited. When the post-pandemic order arrives, we will stumble into it, blinking in the brightness of a new world.


The language and mood of the second COVID-19 wave has changed

This second wave of the pandemic feels quite different than the first.

image: Asia Times

In the Spring, shoppers emptied store shelves of toilet paper –a curious indicator of what’s important in people’s lives. A sense of domesticity swept the nation as flour flew off the shelves in a bread-baking frenzy. Canadians became more self-sufficient as vegetables replaced flower gardens in back yards.

Language reflects the change. Google tracts word usage use across Canada. Now no one is trying to “flatten the curve.”  “Flatten the curve” as a phrase peaked in mid-March. Now usage is just three per cent of that. I succumbed to the impulse to use, what had become a cliché, in this column mid-March.

“Novel coronavirus” use peaked in late January and use is now at four per cent of that. The shine has gone off the coronavirus and now it’s just the same old sneaky, deadly disease that has killed over one million globally.

 “New normal” is doing a bit better. Use peaked in May and is now one-half that.

I’m struck by how different normalcy looks now when I watch movies made in pre-pandemic times. People are walking the streets without masks, going to bars and clubs, getting together in large groups at weddings and funerals without a care about whether they are spraying a deadly virus into the air and infecting those around them.

Who’s catching it and dying has changed. Most deaths in the first wave, ninety per cent, were residents of nursing and long-term care residences. The residence death rate is rising again but the source of infections seems to be from young people in the community, not care-givers. Three quarters of infections were in those under the age of 50 as of November 19.

The season plays a role. In the summer, outdoor activities limited the spread. With Fall and Winter approaching, a second wave is sweeping the nation as families and friends gather together indoors.

Fraudsters are cashing in on the second wave as Canadians take advantage of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. One way is for scammers to relieve us of our benefit is identity theft. They use stolen identity to apply for and redirect benefits. Another scam is to approach an eligible person with an offer to help them apply for CERB, then to use their identity to redirect the benefit.

On the bright side, Canadians have less debt and fewer bankruptcies than in the first wave. With the receipt of CERB, the debt to disposable income ratio fell remarkably, from 175 per cent in the first three months of the year to just 158 per cent between April and June. The massive wave of support programs rolled out by governments across the country have kept peoples’ heads above water.

Supply chains have become normalized during the pandemic. Even as COVID-19 cases climb, supply chains have been secured so that groceries should continue to be available. 

Of course, government benefits will end, debt will increase, and service workers will be unemployed.

But Spring brings hope that a vaccine will be available and put an end to this nightmare.

This is the way the pandemic ends

This is the way the pandemic ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.*

The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, is sweeping the globe like wildfire killing hundreds of thousands in its wake. But its months are numbered. In a year or so, it will become part of the suite of viruses that regularly infect us –it will become endemic.

image: bbc

It will be demoted to a common coronavirus, one of the seven known human coronaviruses. Four are part of the regular group that cause one-third of common colds.

But this virus will be remembered as being distinct from its older brother, SARS-CoV which caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003. This new coronavirus is sneaky.

The older coronavirus was conspicuously clumsy. Infected people became infectious after they became sick. They were flagged with the disease before they passed it on. Infected people with serious problems breathing and a fever showed up at hospitals where the disease was largely contained. Epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong says:

“Most patients with SARS were not that contagious until maybe a week after symptoms appeared (Scientific American, June, 2020).”

When sick people are not contagious, they can be quarantined before spreading the disease. Containment of SARS worked so well that only 8,098 cases were reported globally with 774 deaths, mostly in Toronto and Hong Kong.

SARS-CoV’s evil younger brother, this one that causes COVID-19, uses stealth. Infected people spread the disease before they show symptoms. You can be asymptomatic and feeling fine, all the while shedding the deadly virus. No warning signal until after the damage is done.

Hospitals are particularly vulnerable. When I went to the emergency section of the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops to get stitched up, I was intercepted at the entrance and asked if I had any of the COVID-19 symptoms. I didn’t but I could have been infected and spreading the virus. They took a chance on treating me, for which I’m thankful.

Political leaders can play a part, or not. Trump twiddles as the pandemic wildfires rage across the land of the free. Beachgoers merrily flock together in Florida and California. As protesters defend their constitutional rights to carry guns and not to wear masks, the novel coronavirus revels in the merriment.

While SARS-CoV-2 enjoys its killer notoriety now, soon it will be just another garden-variety nuisance.

The most famous example of a virus’s fall from infamy is the Spanish flu pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus from 1918 to 1919. In over two years and three waves of assault, the pandemic infected 500 million and killed nearly 100 million.

Health officials didn’t have the control measures we have today, simple measures like school closures and physical isolation. It ended only when enough people survived the pandemic with immunity.

Governments have demonstrated their worth during the pandemic, or not. Canada is doing a good job but our neighbours to the south, not so much.

Sarah Cobey, epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, says: “The question of how the pandemic plays out is at least 50 percent social and political.”

The other 50 percent comes from science in the development of a vaccine. Only then will CoV-2 be completely vanquished.

Until, vigilance is the adage. CoV-2 will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

* My apologies to T. S. Eliot, author of the poem “The Hollow Men” (1925).

Emergence of Canada’s economy from a coma must be done carefully

Canada’s economy has been placed in an induced coma since it was infected with the novel coronavirus. Arousal from the coma must be done carefully to avoid a devastating setback.

The Dirty Thirties. Image: Canadian Encyclopedia

Keeping the comatose economy on life support has been expensive. We’ve blown the wad on the first wave of the pandemic to the tune of one-quarter trillion dollars. We can’t afford an expensive relapse.

Canada’s debt, manageable now, could lead to consequences worse than that of the Dirty Thirties if the recovery is not done right.

Royal Bank of Canada CEO Dave McKay puts it this way: “We can’t screw this up because we don’t have enough fiscal firepower. We can’t fail the re-entry. We don’t have enough money for a massive step back.”

Bringing the economy back to life is as much an art as a science; a little wakefulness here, a few stimulations there. Hurry up and wait to see what happens. The patient’s urge to run must be tempered with the pitfalls that lie ahead.

Deep thinkers are at work. We need to listen to the advice of health professionals, who understand the mortal dangers of this virus, and to economists who appreciate the long-term social and economic costs of tanking the economy.

Unemployment already exceeds anything in the past century, except the Great Depression. The sheer number of people affected is staggering. A projected 8.5 million Canadians will receive $2,000 monthly from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). That’s nearly 40 per cent of Canada’s work force.

Unlike Employment Insurance, the CERB does not require recipients to look for work. It doesn’t require them to accept a job offer. Recipients can only earn up to $1,000 a month, anything more and the CERB is lost.

The disincentives to find work are part of the induced coma. Rest and relaxation is the prescription. Workers must stay home to avoid contagion. To encourage workers to help wake up the economy, they should be allowed to keep a larger portion of the benefit as they return to work with a gradual clawback as earnings rise.

This would be a step towards a basic annual income for all Canadians –an idea supported by both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network, is urging just such a change. The group issued a policy paper in January that proposed a $22,000 annual benefit for a single adult. Under that proposal, benefits would be reduced by 40 cents for each dollar of earnings and would be eliminated entirely after a person’s income rose above $55,000.

Child care is another knotty problem. Parent returning to work need affordable child care, but they need to assured that they are not sending their children into harm’s way. Any uncertainty about public-health risks at daycares and schools will prove to be a significant disincentive for many Canadians to return to work.

The next decade may well be known as the Dark Twenties. The economy that awakes from the induced slumber might not recognize its former self.