Public health experts around the world have consistently warned us that at some point, we’re all going to get COVID-19. It was my turn last week.
A few hours after refereeing my last playoff hockey game on the evening of March 22, I started to feel poorly. By the next morning, I was gripped by an aching pain throughout my body, a profoundly stuffed-up head and the beginnings of a nagging cough.
By that evening, I was flat on my back, feverish, congested and moaning incessantly like Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. The only difference was that I was didn’t have the energy to have a conversation with anyone.
The next morning, I got my first positive rapid antigen test result. That turned out to be the beginning of six days of suffering. Think of the worst flu you’ve ever had and then double it. At least, that’s the way it was for me.
Now, to put things into perspective, I was not admitted to hospital and, other than still having far less energy than normal, I’m OK. Lots and lots of other people weren’t as lucky as me. But it was (and remains) a very unpleasant experience that has created some new insight into both COVID-19 and the provincial government’s current hands-off approach to managing the pandemic.
Premier Heather Stefanson (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)
First, if you remove all restrictions and mandates, more people will get sick. It is hard to ignore the fact that, in the first week the province decided to allow unvaccinated people into public places and eliminated the need to be masked, I got sick.
Now, I’m a pretty small sample, and I often say that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." But given the government has stopped giving us data on the state of the pandemic, the anecdotal evidence is piling up: more than 20 personal care homes are dealing with outbreaks; and a lot of fully vaccinated Manitobans are contracting COVID in the weeks following the removal of restrictions.
Which brings me to a second point: there is no blanket immune-system dividend from getting COVID-19. The conventional wisdom, some of it highly manipulated by anti-vax forces, was that contracting COVID-19 was like winning the pandemic lottery: if you survived, you were immune from contracting the disease for some period of time, well into the future.
Then came Omicron and the realization that even those who had suffered through COVID-19, along with all those who were fully vaccinated, were still able to get sick. The dividend, such as it is, is that we are supposed to be protected from getting seriously ill and requiring medical treatment. That’s certainly not nothing.
But it does allow us to start calculating the longer-term impact of COVID-19 if, as it seems now, we are all destined to get sick, over and over again as the virus mutates. Some have suggested this will ultimately make the SARS-CoV-2 virus more like the seasonal flu. It won’t be.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is much more contagious than influenza. Which means, the longer it is circulating among a population that is not forced to adhere to social and economic restrictions, the more of us will get sick. And with each new variant, our risk of repeat infection goes up.
Okay, but when Premier Heather Stefanson and her public health advisors removed the vaccine and mask mandates this month, it made all of our lives better. Didn’t it?
Nope. The social and economic benefits that were supposed to accrue from the removal of restrictions haven’t manifested.
Riley Grae, a shop on Corydon, displays a sign of its closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press files)
This week, the Free Press reported that small businesses are still being hammered by COVID-19.
Customer-facing staff are getting sick at an alarming rate, which is preventing these businesses from operating at full capacity. A survey by the Manitoba Restaurants & Food Services Association shows restaurants are still operating at 65 per cent of pre-pandemic staffing levels.
Some of this shortage is due to sickness. In other instances, according to the MRFSA, it’s an inability to hire new people to fill jobs in the hospitality industry. If people do not feel safe, they will not go to work in bars and restaurants. And they don’t feel safe largely because the province removed all restrictions and mandates.
And let’s remember, getting sick isn’t just a physical problem. Contracting COVID-19 takes a psychological toll as well. Getting sick means that now, I’m reluctant to go to movies, eat out at restaurants or referee any more hockey games this year. Government is not forcing me to shelter at home, but that’s really all I want to do right now.
The Stefanson government still argues that removing all restrictions and mandates is a step towards normalcy. From this journalist’s COVID-19-addled perspective, all we’ve done is put more people at risk without producing much in the way of positive social or economic outcomes.
Mask and vaccine mandates were not stopping us from living a normal life. They were helping most Manitobans live the best life possible under the circumstances. Take away those safeguards, and all you have is a lot of risk without much hope of reward.
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