Lockdown Life: Show me the data!
I have forgotten how nice it is to go for a walk in the winter in Canada if you are wearing the right clothes. Of course, I live in Windsor where cold is defined as -2 OC or lower so not every Canadian will necessarily agree with me. Going for a walk is one of the few things many of us in Ontario are legally allowed to do at this stage of the COVID 19 pandemic – so walk we will – sometimes brazenly in groups of two or three.
Last Tuesday I took a break from work from 1:30 p.m. to 2:08 p.m. to watch Doug Ford’s announcement on new measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the Province of Ontario. While every province is different, the main themes are the same: we are failing to control the spread of the virus, people are dying, our medical systems are taxed to the limit, and many workers and business owners are watching their lives destroyed.
Before I start this rant, let me make it clear that I am not advocating for anyone to break the rules that our provinces and country has set out for us all to follow in order to stop the spread of the virus and to save lives. Citizens have a duty to follow the rules that government establishes but we also have a duty to question those rules. Asking questions is my raison d’être in life – so ask I will.
Defining the Problem
If you haven’t noticed, we are deep into a pandemic, rounding the corner to a full year of misery. The problem facing society is complex: “How do we stop the virus, save as many lives as possible, avoid destroying small business and families, and limit the growth of government debt beyond a level that we can never afford to pay back? I thought Rubik’s Cube was tough to solve – this problem is many orders of magnitude more difficult.
Because the problem is so complex and because it’s a problem that no elected official has had to solve in the past and because there is no playbook on how it was ever solved satisfactorily in the past (although South Korea could offer some clues), government has simplified the problem to ‘minimize the number of deaths reportedly due to COVID 19 while spending whatever we need to spend to address the negative consequences that arise from a singular focus on the primary goal’.
The math is simple and irrefutable. If you have a single goal of minimizing deaths the best way to achieve this end is by minimizing the number of individuals that get the virus and the best way to do that is by isolating every individual into their own individual bubble.
Since March 2020, our government has closed many ‘non-essential businesses’. We have been urged not to travel, to minimize the size of gatherings, and told to stay 6 feet apart from others and wear masks if we need to go out. It is funny, in the times of a pandemic the metric system goes out the window. Although metric has been in use in Canada since 1970, not enough Canadians have a strong sense of what 2 meters looks like (about 6 and a half feet).
Last March, although it felt draconian, I was on board with the proposed two-week lockdown as a way to ‘flatten the curve’ and to build up our capacity to manage the increasing number of Canadians that would need a hospital bed. In my commentary last April, I admitted to being worn down from being trapped in my house and I started to ask questions on whether we had the best answer to the overall problem.
Unfortunately, tidy math solutions, with all of the necessary simplifying assumptions, rarely reflect reality. This is why the sport of economics is such a messy business. There is no formula that explains how the world works and so everyone is left to guess. As we have seen from the stock market winners and losers, some of us are just better guessers. Sadly, I am not one of the good guessers when it comes to stock picking.
As the lockdown has continued, and as winter has arrived, we are seeing cases and hospitalizations rise and we have seen increasing calls from our hospital workers for more and more strict lockdowns. We have one solution to a narrowly defined problem, and it is not clear that the solution is working.
I am not the only one tired of the lockdowns. It is hard to tell if the fact that some people are flying off to warmer climates this winter is evidence that their mental well-being demands that they leave our lockdown or if I am just more compliant to government rules and recommendations, whether they make sense or not.
What I will say is that in this house, where girlfriends were not allowed to visit during the holidays and our boys were not allowed to go to their houses, I am getting a little pissed that the rules have taken away my three-family six-person quiet Friday night card game while other Canadians are crowding Costco and Pearson airport. The expression ‘we are all in this together’ has never rung hollower.
Reports are emerging that the lockdowns are having a greater toll on women and minorities. Where are all the woke politicians that want life to be fair on addressing this constituency?
Redefining the Problem
What if we are looking at the problem incorrectly? In my April commentary I raised concerns about how mental health fit the picture. In December 2020 the McDonald-Laurier Institute issued a paper authored by Dr. Ari Joffe at the University of Alberta titled Rethinking lockdowns: The risks and trade-offs of public health measures to prevent COVID-19 infections. I will let you read the paper but in a nutshell, Dr. Joffe has done the hard work of taking my intuition that the needed solution isn’t one dimensional and identified what he calls ‘collateral effects’ and presents his ‘cost-benefit analysis’.
SPOILER ALERT: Like me, Joffe asks several important questions – first, is one year of life equal for every citizen or are quality years more valuable? Second, what benefits are we sacrificing in future decades with today’s lost revenues from a closed economy? He finds one more insight that I had not, if those future lost services that government will not be able to afford include future health care services – then we may not have saved any total years of life and only traded between those who we decided to help (today) and who we indirectly decided not to help (in the future).
I talked on the phone with my mom this morning, she is sheltered in her long-term care home, already vaccinated once. She doesn’t know who I am or that the nice lady that comes to visit her is my sister, but it is nice nonetheless to talk. If you told me that she would survive 2020 I would have predicted she would not. Her health is not good, she is 87, and there is a virus out there. I suspect with the vaccine delivered that even if she dodges COVID we will still lose her in the next few years from her dementia.
In the meantime, my kids can’t go see her (nor do I) and they can’t go to school or see their friends and two of them can’t go to work (one is making food, so he is essential). We have a great home and financial resources to help them with this struggle but struggle nonetheless they do. If you asked me if I would be willing to lose my mom a year or two early to save one of my sons from suicide, I would make the trade immediately. So being the best citizen I can be, I am also willing to lose my mom a year early to save someone else’s child from suicide or even the less deadly but nonetheless debilitating depression and drug abuse that is becoming far too common for us to continue to ignore.
Trust the Data
As we see more and more Canadians choose not to follow the rules or just ignore what the government thinks is right, those of us who are trying to do all we can can’t help but think that the rules don’t make sense. More bothersome is the complete absence of an explanation on how these lockdowns can play out effectively. We were told in April that a vaccine was unlikely before the end of 2020 and might well be into 2021 if it even arrived this year. That means that lockdowns were never going to be a way to wait out the arrival of vaccines.
So far Ontario has reported about 240,000 cases and we are running ‘hot’ at 3,500 cases a day. With a population of 8.5 million, at the rate we are going we just need to stay locked down another 2,300 days or so (about 6.5 years). Does anyone see that we are following a formula that is doomed to fail?
The original point to the lockdowns was to buy time to build capacity in our hospitals for the inevitable second wave. Did our government fail to execute on that strategy while I was outside golfing this summer? All I hear is that we are down to only a few extra hospital beds and we have no hope of salvaging things if case counts double.
Why aren’t the lockdowns stopping the spread of the virus? One answer is individual cheating. But I am convinced that there is another answer – the lockdowns were never going to work to the degree the politicians hoped. The logic of closing a dress shop where one or two workers wearing masks serve one or two customers doing the same while at the same time putting 500 people into Costco and a couple hundred more out in the parking lot to line up can’t make sense. Closing a small restaurant but keeping the Chrysler Assembly Plan open with a few thousand workers on the job and then passing a few thousand more at shift change can’t make sense. Where are all these workers going to eat lunch every day? My guess is it is in the lunchroom.
I don’t have any evidence that I am right – but the government has the data and they aren’t telling us that I am wrong. Today in Windsor, 44 of the 45 outbreaks of the virus are workplaces and long-term care homes. They will tell you the type of employer, Manufacturing, Food and Beverage Service, etc, but they won’t tell you the exact business. Why is that? Do they want to avoid having us connect the dots that the problem is large employers and not small ones? Do they want to avoid having us ask hard questions such as why building new cars is essential right now? If we knew the real culprit was the grocery store would more of us ‘click and pick’ which surely store owners would not want. Is the disaster in Brampton directly tied to warehouse operations and what would be the consequences of cutting them to half-capacity?
In the absence of compelling data to say otherwise, I say that large employers have had their turn, I think we need to shut down larger employers and keep the smaller ones open. I think we need to let the young and resilient take risks with their lives while we do our best protect the elderly with targeted lockdowns and vaccines.
I feel badly for Doug Ford. I am absolutely sure that he is genuinely trying to do the best for Ontario and he probably isn’t getting much sleep himself. I worry that the medical folks and large employers have disproportionate access to sway his thinking. I worry that he has put himself in a box where every additional COVID death is somehow his failure and the only metric to measure his tenure as a leader will be a final body count. I worry that he will be remembered as the conservative guy that blew up his province’s economic engine for a decade chasing fool’s gold.
Through the miracle of resolve and brilliant research we now have a vaccine that has started to work through our population – but it will not make it to a sufficient number of us until the fall to be the solution for which we hope. Worse, some surveys report as many as 30% of the population doesn’t have faith that the vaccines will be safe and intend not to get it right away if at all. Herd immunity might never be realized.
The fact that we are hearing disagreement by MPPs to Doug Ford’s approach doesn’t prove that he has insubordination on his hands – it only proves that there are differing views on the problem and the solution. Embedded in our government’s choices is politics and to say otherwise is disingenuous. How else do we explain the 5-hour debate that our provincial government held in caucus before coming out with this newest round of oppression?
A few weeks ago, Canadians got to see a glimpse of a world gone wrong at the Capitol Building in the United States of America. Evidence of how badly things can go when a government loses the moral authority over its people who become unwilling to respect a government’s elected authority. I continue to live in Canada because I think our citizens are less prone to civil war and because we have a more compassionate view of helping each other with our tax dollars. But this outburst by our neighbors to the south and the increasing number of Canadians breaking the rules of the various lockdowns we face is a warning to our governments that waiving the election victory flag is not an iron-clad guarantee that the electorate will continue to follow your lead. Most importantly, once you lose your followers, it is hard to get them back.
Life is fragile and none of us knows how much time we will get. I have freely admitted that I postponed to my future much fun in life to get some serious work done over the past 30+ years. As a result, I am well educated and well compensated but the number of years and physical ability to enjoy the future are diminished.
I think we are making a mistake by stealing today from our youth under the manifesto that it won’t last long, and they will have many years after the pandemic to enjoy life. Not everyone gets tomorrow and I think we need to let those that are willing to take chance get onto today. If given the choice I would likely still work from home most days and wear a mask when around town. But I wouldn’t give up my Friday night cards and would definitely go get a haircut.
Note to Readers: My friend Tom wins the prize for being the first one to let me know that my estimate of the population of the province in which I have lived my entire life is wildly inaccurate. The numbers change but the message does not – waiting on herd immunity is not a good strategy. I always say there are three kinds of actuaries, ones that are good at math and ones that are not.