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A Message from the Public Health Office for Nice Feelings

Fighting a pandemic is such a grind. Let’s call it endemic and pretend we’ve done enough.

Andrew Nikiforuk 27 Jan 2022TheTyee.ca

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

Fellow Canadians:

I come on behalf of many of Canada’s public health officials, along with our fearless political leaders. They have asked me to deliver some important news here on your screen in the form of a unicorn cat angel avatar, hiding my identity in order to protect my privacy and safety.

What I have been charged to say is this: We have completely lost the plot on COVID.

Yes, as you are already sensing, this briefing will contain candour generally absent from our robotic COVID press briefings.

Now stay calm. The plot, in case you forgot, was to control and reduce transmission of the virus so it wouldn’t kill lots of people, cripple citizens with long COVID, threaten the vulnerable, trash our hospital system and make more dangerous variants.

What were we thinking?

Please, don’t be alarmed, but it is time to voice the obvious. We have decided to surrender and give up for the public good. Let’s admit it. Everyone is tired and done with COVID. Even Jordan Peterson. Especially Jordan Peterson.

So the COVID nightmare is hereby declared officially over or almost over. We know this is the case because we signed a nondisclosure agreement with Mr. Omicron and company.

Yesterday, our dear officials were struggling with an evolving pandemic driven by a novel virus that made us all look like slow-witted fools.

But today we are all living in the warmth of a stable endemic.

Isn’t that good news for a change?

As a consequence, we are now entering an era of Not That Big a Deal. Mr. Omicron was fast and mild for the survivors, and why shouldn’t the next variant be even faster and milder? Haven’t our predictions been accurate? Second thought: ignore that question.

You are probably wondering what’s taken public health officials so long to learn how to relax and to live with a continuously mutating novel virus that destabilizes the immune system, inflames the lungs, infects bone marrow, swells lymph nodes, lowers sperm counts, wreaks havoc with the blood clotting system, damages the heart, and attacks the brain in about one out of 100 people?

Attitude, frankly. And yes, losing the plot was essential, too.

Now my amazing news has probably caught many citizens by surprise, but someone had to start the celebration before the naysayers caught wind and went all a-twitter about it. Everybody is so negative and angry these days.

A public health official must be, first and foremost, an optimist. Rule one: Never talk about reality or the long tails of pandemics, because that stuff just sucks.

And you know what the second rule is? Never prepare for the next wave with good masks, improved ventilation, air filtration and better testing.

And the third rule? Avoid nuance and uncertainty like the plague. But I digress.

Point is, an optimistic attitude is what’s needed in order for us to govern. Not a bunch of scientific facts in service of urging us to take precautions.

Some of you will remember that a couple of waves ago (I hope I can keep all these waves straight), our trusted officials instructed you to wear a mask, isolate when sick, get tested, avoid crowds and bend that dangerous curve.

Meanwhile our fearless leaders promised that a vaccine, and only a vaccine, would deliver us from the virus.

They repeatedly vowed that one or two doses would deliver us, magically, straight into the waiting arms of herd immunity and normalcy.

But thanks to a round of recent meetings with Mr. Omicron, we have changed our minds, ejected that plot, and written a new script.

To be truthful, a few of us didn’t even know what the hell herd immunity meant when we talked about it.

Oh, well.

So here’s the new pitch. Don’t worry about getting infected with Omicron. (Yes, it has killed 1,107 Canadians a week as of Jan. 24, but they were mild deaths).

We want you to hurry back to work, crowd those schools, forget about isolating while sick, and not bother with testing because we don’t have the capacity anymore.

Ten days, five days, no days, fun days, as we now say in the office.

Yes, I acknowledge that the science indicates that an infection lasts about 10 days, but really, we need balance in our communications more than ever. We need to balance what we know and what we want people to feel.

So, for example, we don’t want to tell you how many infected kids are in school. Who needs that kind of anxiety? Transparency is overrated. We aren’t going to give out that basic information anymore.

And those N95 masks and all of those studies about the need for proper ventilation in schools and workplaces? Forget about that nonsense. Embrace the endemic and stay calm.

Pay no mind to that Colorado rabble rouser, a so-called expert on aerosol transmission of disease, who had the gall to nominate the Vancouver Coastal Health authority for membership in the COVID Hall of Shame for dismissing HEPA filters as essential for schools. That man should wash his hands and shut up.

While we are on the subject, here’s another malcontent who should be ignored. Medical health officer Dr. Mustafa Hirji looked at the evidence and decided citizens in Ontario’s Niagara Region needed better public health standards in their schools than those mandated at the provincial level.

Hirji thought his citizens deserved better masks, contact tracing and air quality measures so parents and children would feel safer about returning to school.

This kind of local adaptive behaviour to an evolving pandemic can’t be tolerated. What would happen if communities all decided to have higher standards than their central authorities? That’s a recipe for anarchy, and we who must govern are no fans of anarchy.

So I wasn’t kidding when I told you that we have lost the plot. Buried it deep and forgot where we hid it. And frankly, it’s about time. You’d think limiting contagious disease was in our job description or something.

You do know there’s a big difference between pandemic and endemic? So go right ahead and celebrate that we’ve decided that COVID is now endemic. Rejoice!

What’s that? Evidence? There is no evidence supporting this endemic declaration.

In fact, the definition of endemic is pretty specific — a stable and static disease that doesn’t explode exponentially like Mr. Delta or Mr. Omicron.

But that didn’t stop Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical health officer and a bold pioneer in our field, from jumping the gun and prematurely declaring the pandemic over last year. She is a true visionary and you can bet we took notes.

True, an endemic disease wouldn’t empty workplaces or flood hospitals the way the COVID variants have. But we’re going to overlook this annoying fact because we want everyone to be optimistic.

We look at it like this. Malaria is endemic and it killed 600,000 people in 2020. Hepatitis C is endemic and it kills about half a million folks a year. That’s puny compared to COVID which has killed about six million people a year and could even double that. But hey, that’s when COVID was a pandemic, not endemic.

Now evolutionary virologists will accuse our smart policy-makers of invoking the word endemic “as an excuse to do little or nothing.” They’ll also claim that evolution can change a virus as if transforming a house cat into a meat-eating tiger. But that’s exactly the kind of nuance and complexity we can’t tolerate anymore. Besides, who’s to say we won’t end up with a unicorn cat angel? Hope for the best!

These same pesky virologists also make over the top arguments in the usual journals like Nature: “Thinking that endemicity is both mild and inevitable is... dangerous: it sets humanity up for many more years of disease, including unpredictable waves of outbreaks.” Pure fearmongering. Why can’t they look on the bright side of life?

Perhaps you’ve heard what some immunologists think about declaring COVID endemic. These worry warts are even worse than the evolutionary virologists. They think we will see “a lot of maimed people with autoimmunity” and more chronic disease. Some even warn that long COVID will become as diverse and big a problem as cancer. And that one infectious surge after another could take a brutal toll on the human immune system.

Well, to be honest, that’s why you won’t hear us public health officials and politicians talking much about long COVID.

Did we put all of our eggs in one basket? Yes we did. And guess what? We made a big omelette. But we can’t get the anti-vaxers to eat any part of that omelette. So now we are dealing with breakthrough infections, waning vaccines, booster shots, and a virus determined to survive at any cost.

Oops. Don’t blame us for not studying reams of historical studies predicting a strain of recalcitrant human nature might ruin our vaccine-only approach to getting us out of this jam. Instead, direct your anger at the vaccine hesitant.

Get mad! (At them.)

In the meantime, as most know, the more a virus replicates, the more it will mutate, resulting in more variants in places with runaway transmission like England, India, South Africa and Canada. Maybe Saskatchewan or Alberta will contribute a variant to the world. It’s the kind of plot twist that can happen when you’ve thoroughly lost the plot.

There are a few places on the planet that still cling to ways of thinking we find inconvenient and therefore outdated. If you lived in Japan, for example, you’d see a lot of public health messages telling you to “Avoid the three C’s: Closed spaces. Crowded spaces. Close contact settings.” Boring.

Be thankful you don’t live in Japan, or South Korea or Taiwan for that matter, where they rigorously employ drugs, masks, testing and tracing, ventilation and isolation. As a result, vaccines in those places are collectively more effective in suppressing the virus.

True, but if we were to follow that old-fashioned script in this country it might hurt people’s feelings. And giving people the blues is not good for public health.

And so, we stick by our mantra in Canada: Be kind. Be calm. Be safe.

Be willing to accept that your leaders have lost the plot.

Feel better?  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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