A pound of flesh nearest the heart

As we enter what are likely the end stages of the Covid-19 pandemic with the virus transitioning to an endemic state, our society has become angry and self-righteous, egged on by our political and chattering class. Pandemics at some point in their trajectory often find someone to blame. During the Black Death, the Jews made for an easy scapegoat, and in more modern times homosexuals served as the perfect minority to hate and blame during the beginning of AIDS pandemic. The pattern is always the same – find a group that nobody likes, claim that they are the party most responsible for the on-going disease, and then pour all of our hate and derision on them. Use political power to punish them and satiate the mob’s need for retribution. Today, with Covid-19, society’s scapegoat is the unvaccinated. Yes, people should get the vaccine; yes, they are safe and effective at preventing serious complications, especially for high risk populations, but a near religious fervor has gripped Canada in blaming the unvaccinated for our current woes with a near insatiable appetite to punish.

American political cartoon by Thomas Nast titled “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things”, published in Harper’s Weekly, 2 September 1871. Anti-Irish sentiment ran deep in corners of North America during the late 19th century, fed and maintained by the chattering class. The ugliness of the mob.

The story sells itself. Unvaccinated people are much more likely to experience severe illness, hospitalization, or death, especially if they have comorbidities. Currently in Ontario about half of the Covid-19 ICU patients and one quarter of all Covid-19 hospital patients are unvaccinated even though they only represent about 10% of vaccine eligible citizens. Clearly the unvaccinated are highly disproportionate in their need for health care services should they contract Covid-19. Yet the unvaccinated are in fact scapegoats for much larger problems.

The vaccines are not particularly effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19. With the rise of the Omicron variant, Covid-19 is so transmissible that the argument for externalities completely falls apart. The Covid-19 vaccines almost exclusively provide their protection to the person receiving the vaccine, conferring negligible spillover effects in the form of transmission interruption in the wider community. Thus, the refusal to take the vaccine, however misguided, only hurts the unvaccinated person. Most professionals recognize the ineffectiveness of the vaccines to control transmission. Hence, even with 90% of eligible Ontarians vaccinated, we see tens of thousands of new cases per day leading to explosive exponential growth in the vaccinated population. However, politicians and the chattering class argue that the unvaccinated play a special role because they disproportionately place demand on the health care system.

To get a sense of our problems, we can look to our health professionals on the ground. An emergency room physician, Dr. Brett Belchetz, told Global News “We are looking at hospitals that are struggling to keep up and now you add in all of those extra patients…we are in a dangerous situation here. You see patients being treated in the hallway with regularity and often that is just a choice we have to make — provide no care or provide hallway care.” An anonymous nurse added, “the volume of patients is insane. We are so overcapacity.” Dr. Belchetz continued, “It doesn’t take a mathematical genius or an expert in health care to understand that having more people in the province, especially people that are older, that are sicker, with fewer hospital beds, is a recipe for hospitals to operate overcapacity. And not just overcapacity — dangerously overcapacity.” It gets worse, Michael Garron Hospital, formerly Toronto East General Hospital, has postponed seven cancer surgeries as a result of a shortage of beds in the ICU since December. Carmine Stumpo, vice-president of programs at Michael Garron Hospital, says it’s been a juggling act for surgeons, “So we work with our hospitals to ensure that sort of situation hopefully is completely avoided, but if it’s necessary it’s minimized.” Serious issues for sure but these are not stories from this winter or even last winter; they are from the flu season of 2017-18! Ontario hospitals have been in an overcapacity crisis long before Covid-19.

If all the unvaccinated had been vaccinated, Covid-19 would still be over-running Ontario’s health care capacity. Data on the comorbidity status of the unvaccinated is not readily available, but at least some of them would have still ended up in the hospital and the ICU vaccinated or not. Eliminating a quarter of the Covid-19 hospital cases in Ontario still leaves us terribly strained. Canada has one of the worst health care capacities in the developed world and vaccinating the last 10% of our population is not nearly enough to hold the ground against the Omicron wave. The unvaccinated are not the cause of hospital overcapacity but they allow our governments to distract us from their failure to build a robust health care system, and their additional failure to build adequate Covid-19 specific health care treatment capacity. Even though we have been trudging along with a broken health care system for decades, which Covid-19 has exposed for all to see, our political class can now just blame the Covid-19 unvaccinated. It’s an easy way out.

Blaming the unvaccinated is bad enough, but the Ontario government’s lockdown policies create a super regressive health care tax. The argument for lockdowns is that, at this point, they are the only way to protect our health care system. I doubt that the lockdown approach is correct, but even if it is, the people who pay for that protection are the working class who can’t find timely daycare for their children and who find themselves locked out of work. They pay the “health care tax” in-kind today, protecting the health care system, to make up for what wasn’t paid earlier. And all the while the laptop class enjoys full salary and the opportunity to work in their pajamas. We’re all in this together….yeah right we are.

How did we get here? Canada has large structural issues that are undermining our democracy and harming our institutions. These problems go well beyond Left vs Right or any political stripe. Our country has not properly addressed its regional composition either in the BNA of 1867 or the Constitution Act, 1982. Instead of a properly constituted federation in which representation by population is tempered by strong regional power, we have quasi-federalism or some kind of hyphenated federalism (executive-federalism, collaborative-federalism, shared-cost-federalism, fiscal-federalism, etc.) and in that regard governments responsible for delivering programs become increasingly divorced from the government that raises the revenue. By constitutional necessity, Canada leans on Ottawa’s spending power to address regional needs which has had the perverse effect of turning health care funding into a circus of side deals between the provinces and the federal government, not to mention the complexities of indigenous health care delivery. The locus of decision-making shifts like sand dunes across the political landscape, making it difficult for the public — and at times even Parliament itself — to hold the appropriate government and decision-making body to account. We have deep structural institutional and democratic problems in Canada which Covid-19 has laid bare through our health care systems. Blaming the unvaccinated for our difficulties in the current Covid-19 Omicron wave distracts us from the important work that lies ahead of us not only for our health care systems but for the health of Confederation itself.

13 thoughts on “A pound of flesh nearest the heart”

  1. Reply to James Bugden:
    I really like Bardo’s reply to your question. Why be a keeper when a brother is needed?
    If you are Canadian, it goes without saying that your tax dollars go toward the health costs of smokers, people with sedentary lifestyles, people who choose unhealthy nutrition, people who are obese and do nothing to address it, and otherwise make no effort to achieve or maintain a healthy body. Should you be the keeper of those folk? I am a 72 years young female who has seen a doctor twice in 9 years, one time just to meet the doctor. I do all I can to be healthy. I do not put a burden on the health care system, but because I choose not to be part of a clinical trial and have an experimental pharmaceutical product injected into my body, I have effectively been designated as a second class citizen and have been barred from much of public life. I don’t want you to be my keeper. I’m responsible for my own choices and wellbeing. But, I would like to be your friend.

  2. This article, together with “A night with the untouchables” are beautiful and well written. You are a blessing to us in these times. God bless you!

  3. We know that vaccination against COVID does not provide sterilizing immunity. That even fully vaccinated people can catch COVID and potentially die. This is true.

    But for a data scientist, there seems to be an amazing amount of base rate neglect.

    If I play street hockey in a cul de sac, it’s still possible to be hit by a car and even die. It would be surprising, but it could happen. But if I chose to play street hockey on a highway, few would be surprised if I was hit and/or killed by a car. And everyone would be surprised if I argued that it made no difference where I played, since injury and death was a possible outcome everywhere.

    Vaccinated people can get Omicron and shed viral loads, but they shed less than an unvaccinated person. Simple probability tells you that the unvaccinated not only end up in hospital in much greater numbers than their representation in the population, but that they also serve as a more effective vector for the disease. This was certainly the case with Delta, and remains the case with Omicron, even if less so.

    At some point it may be true that the difference is negligible. That the unvaccinated truly only hurt themselves. That the rest of us could ignore them and the world would go on. I am then left only with the old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

    1. A true brother
      Enjoy each other’s triumphs
      Share in each other’s sorrows
      Are listening when the other needs to talk
      Give advice when needed
      But never push out of fear, hate or overly good intentions
      Because after all true brothers love the other for who they are
      Never for who we think they should be
      For time is short why be a keeper when a brother is needed

  4. Greetings David
    I am writing to commend you on the brilliant work that you did on this piece…and the one that follows (A Night With the Untouchables).

    Along with being a “reformed physicist” you are a fine writer.

    I am a freelance writer /photographer living in rural Saskatchewan.

    However, I am currently writing primarily for a small town weekly.

    When I heard about the convoy (through a friend) and discovered that it would be passing through our area…I felt it was something we were entitled to cover.

    I had the opportunity to speak (by phone) with two of the organizers of the convoy, shortly before the trucks left Vancouver.

    I then wrote an article based on that conversation.

    My goal was allow these 2 individuals to tell their story, by presenting their comments within an article that was objective and fair.

    Some of the folks who have responded to that article…are not at all appreciative of my efforts.

    I’m not surprised by this.
    Nor am I personally offended.
    (I’ve reached a point in my life, where folks who wish to offend me are going to have to work pretty hard.)

    What has surprised me is the level of contempt and derision that some of those folks seem willing to heap upon those taking part in the convoy…even as they they proudly and publicly resolve to neither ‘see’ nor ‘hear’ them.

    Individuals I’ve always thought to be quite reasonable and fair…have pounced on every opportunity that the media has given them…to label this convoy as the work of “extremists” and “radicals” or worse.

    At the same time…some of the people objecting to my article and to the convoy…have expressed a fear that there might be bricks thrown through their window…simply because they’ve chosen to state their opinion.

    I find this…chilling.

    What hurts me the most…is that this is only the most recent evidence I’ve seen of the deep divisions which have been created…even within the small rural community where I live.

    I firmly believe that more of us will have to be willing to take a similar journey…to the one that you describe in A Night With the Untouchables…if we wish to heal those divisions and return to any situation that we’d want to call “normal”.

    Thank you for sharing these poignant and insightful pieces.

    I would welcome an opportunity to speak with you David.

    1. Thank you for your meaningful reply. It gave me some hope on a personal level, after reading this rather bleak assessment of the state of our country. I believe many politicians, with the “mainstream” media at their side, are trying to cause division and chaos amongst the citizenry to facilitate their plan of the global “reset”. A citizenry exhausted and confused by constant buffeting will eventually accept any plan which gives them the promise of some stability, no matter how nefarious that plan actually is.

  5. The Vaccine doesn’t stop you getting Covid. The vaccine was created to weaken symptoms of the virus If a person catches the Virus.

  6. Thank you for this. Important words that should open a frank dialogue and deal with systemic problems facing our local and national institutions.

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