We could have done this differently — and still can

A doctor responds to the COVID-19 crisis.

Opinion

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As we face the second wave of COVID-19, a wave that is so much worse than the first one, I wonder if our response would have been better if the realities of Canadian society were different and if provinces had learned from each other during the first wave.

I wonder what our response to COVID-19 would have been if SARS-CoV-2 hadn't appeared in Wuhan, China, and was called the "Wuhan virus" for its first months of existence; if the virus hadn't been seen as foreign, from a faraway place; if masking weren't a symbol of a culture viewed as subservient, docile and obedient.

I wonder what our response would have been if COVID-19 had continued to affect wealthy, privileged Canadians with the means to travel, rather than infiltrate and harm the lives of the most vulnerable; If we hadn’t enforced the colonial power structures supporting the systemic racism that persists today.

I wonder what our response to COVID-19 would have been if we weren't convinced of our Western exceptionalism—and hadn’t embraced completely the idea that an individualist mindset was superior to a more collectivist mindset; if we had fostered more of our shared humanity and valued the contributions of every person in society.

This shines a great light on the huge inequities that prevail in Canada.

Had things been different, would health-care workers across the country need to scream from the rooftops now and raise the alarm that governments and the general public aren't taking this pandemic seriously enough?

Would we, health-care workers, be exhausted and demoralized from the irony that while Canadians were banging pots for us and calling us heroes in March and April, they now accuse and attack us for fear-mongering and overreacting?

We are simply trying to explain that this avoidable disease is already overwhelming the health-care system across Canada. We are anticipating the horrific moment when we will no longer be able to provide the best care for each and every patient due to a lack of resources and people power.

Restrictions are not a punishment

Arguments against a lockdown have focused on the concern that restrictions will limit the freedoms of those whose basic life necessities have not been significantly affected by COVID-19—people who can afford to hoard supplies, people who don't have to choose between calling in sick at work and not affording groceries, people who have access to clean water.

Restrictions must be enacted with the intent to save peoples’ lives; they are not about punishing non-essential businesses or those who want to live their lives.”

But in fact, restrictions would greatly benefit those who must risk their safety every day to work as essential workers, often without benefits, paid sick-leave, or employment security. It is not a coincidence that many of these essential workers are Black, Indigenous or People of colour. It is also not a coincidence that those marching in "freedom" or "anti-mask" rallies are predominantly white.

This shines a great light on the huge inequities that prevail in Canada.

Mask mandates across the country, including workplaces, are needed not only to provide protection to all Canadians, but especially to protect the essential workers who are exposed to the public every day, and to prevent racist targeting of racialized individuals for wearing a mask.

We are all vulnerable to COVID-19, and if the health-care system collapses it will affect any Canadian who needs medical care for any reason. Restrictions must be enacted with the intent to save peoples’ lives; they are not about punishing non-essential businesses or those who want to "live their lives."

We need restrictions to discourage people from erroneously thinking life is normal—that they can shop, go to a casino or to a bar without possibly getting infected or infecting others. These are not normal times.

If our willpower could single handedly avert this crisis, we would have already.

This is a global pandemic. There are no back-ups. There is no calvary of health-care workers who can ride in and replace us.

We are not calling for more restrictions lightly. We understand that closing down businesses temporarily will hurt livelihoods and increase isolation for some. But many of these hurdles can be buffered with stronger provincial and federal financial supports.

No amount of money, however, will save the lives of those who require urgent medical care when there are no more beds or skilled health-care workers to provide the care.

We need a more collectivist mindset

This is a global pandemic. There are no back-ups. There is no calvary of health-care workers who can ride in and replace us.

We can't be crying out and raising alarms with record case numbers, overflowing COVID-wards and ICUs, and facing staff shortages from hospital outbreaks at the same time that people are marching out on the streets denouncing the restrictions that are being recommended to try to keep them and others safe.

To win the battle against COVID-19 we need to work together. This is the only way to protect all of us in society.

We must protect all vulnerable groups—people living and working in precarious conditions who can't isolate, or don't have benefits or paid sick-leave; people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, with physical or mental health concerns; the elderly; the temporary foreign workers; and those who rely on transit as their only means of getting to their essential jobs.

All provinces need to collaborate to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

We must focus interventions to help all them and the specific challenges they face across Canada. We need to help them combat isolation, housing supports, safe housing, paid sick leave, income support, rent subsidies, rapid testing prioritized for high-risk settings such as long-term care and congregate housing, to name just a few.

And all provinces need to collaborate to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

To improve the health and safety of everyone, those of us who have more privilege must make some sacrifices. We must all reduce our personal contacts now to decrease community spread of this virus that is rampant in much of Canada today, and so that contact tracing has a chance to regroup.

Now is the time to acquaint ourselves with a more collective mindset for the benefit of each and everyone of us, to use the resources we have to help others. It's morally imperative to try and crush this second wave, and to make it the last wave before vaccines are available.

We will only win in this pandemic by working together—society, provinces and federal government. We must not leave anyone behind.

Dr. Amy Tan is a family and palliative care physician in Victoria, B.C. and an adjunct associate professor at the department of family medicine at the University of Calgary. She's also an organizer for Masks4Canada.

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The Sprawl doesn't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we make our stories available to all—and then invite you to be a part of it by supporting our work. If you value local journalism with depth and context, become a Sprawl member today!