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Analysis
  |  
Politics
  |  
Coronavirus

Governments Won’t Stop COVID. It’s Up to Us

Politicians are ignoring the threat, especially to our children. Citizens have to step up and do what our leaders won’t.

Andrew Nikiforuk 30 Aug 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

When governments play with viral fires, it is ordinary citizens, including our unvaccinated children, that get burned.

And so the fourth wave has arrived in our midst like some crazed arsonist in a dry forest under a heat dome.

This is what happens when a reckless political class ignores history (pandemics have long tails); abandons effective control measures; preaches the gospel of unwarranted optimism; surrenders any duty of care; and abandons the unvaccinated (children) to high risk and uncertainty.

Such appalling behaviours have durable consequences and side effects. While public trust in government erodes with the speed of a Tennessee flood, uncertainly about the future spreads faster than foot rot.

In Canada, Alberta stands out as a risible example of this political and moral collapse.

A rudely inept government has refused to address rising caseloads, just as they did repeatedly in two previous waves. (Intransigent governments, whether of the left or the right, tend to behave badly, consistently.)

The Jason Kenney administration can’t even release modelling figures promised a month ago.

And the independent BC COVID-19 Modelling Group calculates that the trajectory of infections in the province will explode from 800 a day to 4,000 in the next two weeks without interventions.

Already COVID-19 patients have begun to dominate intensive care units in Alberta while some non-urgent surgeries are being postponed. As University of Calgary biologist Gosia Gasperowicz has noted, government claims that vaccination will mean fewer hospitalizations as cases rise have been wrong. “The proportion of hospitalizations to daily new cases is not lower than in the second and third wave.”

Kenney’s government simply doesn’t give a fuck about the public health. Or children. The government’s calculated indifference even appears to be part of a deliberate plan to let the virus rip.

Things aren’t any better at the federal level, where all COVID briefings have been conveniently suspended during the election. (The idea that governments can’t govern during an election is pure sophistry.)

The Trudeau government, which botched the nation’s entire pandemic response (if this wasn’t an emergency calling for national standards, than what the hell is?), obviously doesn’t want Delta’s exponential growth to influence a completely unnecessary election.

Meanwhile, soft-headed politicians and addled public health authorities falsely promised all summer long that just one technological marvel, the vaccines, would solve all our COVID woes and end the pandemic with the flourish of a Marvel movie hero.

These same evangelical functionaries also told us that we could now live without masks and good ventilation in our buildings.

As devotees of the easy fix, they abandoned the fate of the unvaccinated and our children to the sweeping powers of the Delta variant.

Am I surprised? No. Am I furious? Yes.

The same irresponsible panjandrums who wilfully let the third wave of COVID overwhelm the capacity of acute care hospitals in Ontario, Alberta and Manitoba ignorantly set the scene for a fourth wave.

Yet the facts remain unchanged. We cannot yet live with a virus whose variants grow exponentially, kill one per cent of the infected (a new strain could easily increase that percentage) and leave another 10 to 35 per cent of the infected with “long COVID,” a suite of maladies that include injuries to the brain, heart, lungs and kidneys.

Many Canadian public health officials continue to avoid the topic of long COVID like the plague. Fortunately, the U.K. keeps better statistics than most on the long tail of COVID infection, and its numbers explain why politicians avoid the issue.

Nearly three million people in the U.K. now suffer from the debilitating symptoms of long COVID.

Many initially had no more than the sniffles. Of those besieged by a variety of chronic ailments, tens of thousands are children.

Even before Delta arrived, children and adolescents showed a higher occurrence of neurological or psychiatric effects from COVID-19 than adults (four times higher).

So be warned: governments that reduce the pandemic to stats on the dead and the recovered are minimizing the complexity and severity of this pandemic.

Countries that have pursued elimination (Zero COVID), such as New Zealand and Taiwan, don’t have long COVID or clogged hospitals to worry about. They used layers of public health measures including effective border controls to eliminate community transmission altogether. They banished fear and restored confidence. And they did so without vaccines.

France’s Molinari Economic Institute recently compared the performance of Zero COVID jurisdictions with G10 nations with no discernible plan other than waiting for the vaccine. The results are jaw-dropping. In the U.K., for example, the economic downturn was nine times more pronounced in 2021 than in New Zealand. Moreover, the U.K. resorted to more stringent measures affecting civil rights than New Zealand ever has. (New Zealand, which hasn’t had a COVID case in six months and only 26 deaths for the entire pandemic, is now battling an outbreak with a strict lockdown.)

The institute’s recommendation: Couple vaccine campaigns with a Zero COVID approach.

And yet our leaders continue to ignore the benefits of elimination, and pursue reactive policies that don’t protect the vulnerable and ensure fourth and fifth waves.

Now let’s briefly consider the fate of our children. COVID doesn’t kill young people the same way it dispatches older people. But children still play a massive role in household and community transmission because so many don’t show any symptoms.

This novel infection can also do massive physical harm to many young people, and leave others with the debilitating symptoms of long COVID.

By removing mask requirements and other protective measures, many governments from Florida to Alberta have left their young children vulnerable to mass infection — a careless and unethical act.

So what happens when you vaccinate about 70 per cent of the population, lift mask protocols and other measures, but leave children under 12 completely unprotected because they haven’t been jabbed?

Well, you push the pandemic into unvaccinated populations. (It could be another six months before researchers complete vaccine trials for children.)

And then what happens when authorities order children back to poorly ventilated schools with mostly ill-conceived health protocols as the Delta variant surges?

The outcome, like so much of this pandemic, is highly predictable: thousands of children have already been hospitalized in the U.S. Throughout the south and Midwest, pediatric hospitalizations have broken all pandemic records. As one doctor told the Wall Street Journal: “This is different than we saw before. We weren’t sustaining those numbers months ago.”

One recent report from the U.S. Centers For Disease Control neatly explains how Delta conquers a classroom. An unvaccinated teacher with symptoms showed up in class with no mask and read to a class of 24 students in Marin County. Half of the students came down with COVID. Everyone in the front row tested positive. The infection then spread to eight parents and siblings.

We can expect the same scenario in Canada soon if we don’t act like an old-fashioned society that actually makes sacrifices for future generations and pays attention to cost-effective measures like fresh air.

Now here’s what Canada’s outrageous political establishment refuses to acknowledge about this pandemic or, for that matter, any rapidly changing emergency.

You either act early or fail spectacularly because exponential growth only leaves you those two options. If a society’s leaders can’t act in solidarity against a common threat that has unmasked the fragility of modern life, than that society will succumb to an uncertain fate. And we know that the poor always bear the heaviest burden any political neglect.

The Delta variant highlights this expanding fragility in spades. It emerged in India where few people had been vaccinated because globalization always favours the rich. The highly transmissible variant (about 60 times more infectious than the original strain) is now surging around the world from Florida to Malaysia. What goes around, comes around in a globalized world.

The Delta variant, too, is mutating. Wherever governments do not act to stop or limit viral transmission, the pathogen will continue to evolve faster than cell phone apps. Unchecked, this evolutionary spiral could take us into some very dark territory.

According to a group of Japanese researchers, cousins of the Delta variant are only a couple of mutations away from another pandemic milestone: vaccine evasion. Or, as the researchers put it: “The SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant is poised to acquire complete resistance to wild-type spike vaccines.”

So we now have three major problems. Less than 24 per cent of the globe’s population has been vaccinated. That means the virus has lots of wiggle room to evolve into something more transmissible, deadly or immune evading. As a result, more variants will appear on the global horizon as assuredly as 18th century pirates on the ocean waters of the Caribbean. Don’t be surprised if one variant soon makes a mockery of vaccination campaigns in rich countries.

Second, the uncontrolled pace of global travel — a threat to a civilization as we know it — guarantees that any new variant will have access to eight billion fresh hosts anytime and everywhere unless effective border controls are imposed. Our addiction to mobility abets and supports rapid viral spread.

Third, all of this is happening at a time when many public health authorities have removed effective measures such as masks in public spaces because they have no real plan to defeat the pandemic other than wishful thinking.

Any high-tech society that surrenders to a novel virus, notes pandemic expert Yaneer Bar-Yam, essentially loses control and embraces a future of chaos. “The enemy won’t stop fighting because we surrender.” But that’s the path our political elites seem to be choosing. Again and again.

These high-risk practices now threaten to undo the good work of vaccines, and erase any public health progress we’ve made to date.

The World Health Network and the COVID Action Group recently summed up the peril of this recklessness.

“The efficacy of the vaccination effort could be undermined as mutations in the virus create steadily more dangerous variants. Control of a deadly infectious disease requires a response that combines a series of effective individual measures into a greater control program larger than the sum of its parts,” it warned.

In other words, a multi-layered approach including masks, testing and ventilation offers more security than vaccines alone. The measures also bolster and protect the effect of vaccines. Countries that ignore this evidence are poised to enter the Twilight Zone of COVID.

Israel, the first nation to vaccinate its population with messenger RNA vaccines, offers a cautionary tale on these urgent concerns. Today it boasts one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world. Yet it currently reports “one of the worst rates of biweekly COVID cases per million people in the world.”

Under the probing assault of the Delta variant, the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccines appears to waning, particularly among those over 60. Vaccines that offered 95-per-cent efficacy eight months ago now appear to be 39-per-cent effective. (As a consequence Israel is now offering booster shots to everyone over the age of 40.)

In August, nearly 60 per cent of 514 Israelis hospitalized for COVID had been fully vaccinated. Without the assistance of masks, testing and excellent ventilation, breakthrough cases are increasingly common. So vaccines alone can’t end the pandemic, as The Tyee has repeatedly warned.

And what about ventilation — another measure many Canadian public health authorities have studiously ignored?

Well, it’s a big deal. It remains the central transmission pathway for this virus. Plexiglass shields and anxious hand washing are nothing more than public health theatre. Floating aerosols that can stay suspended in the air for long periods of time remain the key driver of this pandemic.

An important Science study just concluded that we need smarter ventilation protocols than those currently offered by most governments. “Additional precautionary measures must be implemented for mitigating aerosol transmission at both short and long ranges, with a major focus on ventilation, airflows, air filtration, UV disinfection, and mask fit,” researchers warned.

The pandemic won’t end without authorities paying close attention to these critical interventions.

What is now clear is that nations that refuse to put out a raging viral fire out of apathy, ideology or incompetence will smother their citizens in deadly smoke.

And with that smoke comes fear, or what the U.S. novelist Frank Herbert called “the mind killer.”

So where now do we stand? Can we wait for governments to correct their mistakes and embrace the effectiveness of elimination?

No way.

But there is a path forward, and it involves collaboration and action between concerned citizens and health-care workers.

As many Canadians have already learned, citizens don’t need their government’s permission to mask up in public spaces. Communities now recognize that they don’t have to tolerate arrogance and lack of transparency in politicians. In fact, they have a duty to challenge and denounce such bad governance.

Parents are now pushing school boards to do the right thing by insisting on well-fitting masks, social distancing, smaller cohorts and excellent ventilation for the next generation.

(If you are a parent and concerned about the best masks for yourself and your children consider this valuable guide produced by parents for the COVID Action Group.)

In addition, citizens can resist rotten governance by encouraging local communities to employ layers of protection including testing, masks and ventilation. They can also point to the research that shows elimination works better than the hazardous course chosen by most so-called developed nations.

The recent experience of Taiwan and Florida illustrates the importance of active citizenry during a pandemic.

Let’s begin with the cities of Orlando and Winter Park where the utilities commission uses liquid oxygen to treat the water supply to remove odours and bad taste.

But as the Delta variant burned through unvaccinated populations, hospitals ran out of oxygen. In response Orlando and Winter Park told their citizens to conserve water, so hospitals could treat the deathly ill with oxygen.

In a state where the governor, criminally, doesn’t believe in masks, the residents of Winter Park decided to resist.

"The ripple effects of this pandemic are real and impacting so many unexpected elements of our lives," the local government said in a press release. "The city encourages all of those that are eligible to become vaccinated, continue wearing face coverings when in public indoor spaces, keep a safe social distance, and now please conserve water for a short period of time…. This is one more way we can individually do our part to help our entire community emerge from this pandemic." Amen.

Taiwan tells a different tale of citizen resistance. At the beginning of COVID, Taiwan initially performed well by heeding the hard lessons of SARS. Then its officials grew complacent. Last May, the Alpha variant exploded, killing hundreds (it most likely arrived with an airplane pilot). It took the government 70 days to bring the caseloads back to zero.

But epidemiologist and doctor Shu-Ti Chiou noted that effort required constant public prodding. It was, she admits, “a winding political struggle in which grassroots efforts barely surpassed the malfunctioning political power.”

Nor has the struggle ended. “We have to convince the government of the superiority of the elimination strategy, to support the people, to denounce bad policies and to safeguard science,” said Chiou.

“Politics affects all disease outbreaks,” she observed in an earlier interview. “Politics can be more poisonous than viruses.”

Given that reality, citizens can’t stop being citizens during a pandemic — especially when many Canadian governments no longer are prepared to govern.

And so the future of Canadian children, the unvaccinated, now depend on the moral strength of our citizenry.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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