AS Manitoba has faced an increasingly dire COVID-19 situation, increased restrictions have been enacted in response. These restrictions have been criticized by some as either unnecessary and overly restrictive, or government overreach and an infringement of citizens’ rights.
Proponents of such critiques suggest the current situation is no worse than the strain placed on the health-care system during a particularly bad flu season, or that control of the virus could be achieved by allowing patients who wish to isolate and be careful to do so, and to allow those who "understand the risks" to be allowed to act freely (i.e. without restrictions and without masks).
In addition, some argue that people should be free to make their own health-care choices understanding the risks, and compare accepting the risks of gathering in large groups to accepting the risks of smoking. These arguments, however, are misguided.
There is nothing that compares to what the health-care system is facing now. While the seasonal flu is certainly dangerous and can put some strain at times on the system (and everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated), it does not even come close to what COVID-19 is doing now. Despite the fact we’ve been preparing for this all year and our system is maxed out (which is never the case when flu season comes around), we are at the breaking point.
The system is strained as far as critical care beds and the highly trained individuals required to staff those beds. While we are currently hanging on by a thread, our greatest fear is that we will get to a point where we have no more space or capacity, and we have to start making choices about who we treat and who we don’t — making on-the-spot choices about which patient we want to help, and which we will leave to die — and/or sending COVID-19 patients home with an oxygen tank and wishing them good luck.
These situations are unfathomable, and may seem alarmist, but these scenarios have happened to various extents in places where COVID-19 got out of control, most dramatically in Italy early in the pandemic. This is just not comparable at all to the seasonal flu or any other medical condition as far as the strain it places on the system. No one has ever seen anything like this before.
As a medical community, we are usually quite happy to encourage people to do the right thing — quit smoking, don’t drink and drive, get vaccinated, and so on — but offer them full support and treatment even if they run into complications from bad decisions. We don’t judge people based on the decisions they make, and we don’t advocate for "bans" on dangerous activities, such as smoking or binge drinking. However, it is necessary to control activities when there is harm to others, like smoking in public and drinking and driving, and that’s unfortunately where we are now with COVID-19.
There are no restrictions in place during flu season because it does not spread nearly as rapidly and is not as dangerous as COVID-19, and therefore doesn’t present the same risk to health-care workers, the health-care system as a whole and therefore other citizens who rely on a functioning health-care system.
An individual’s decision to smoke and then die from lung and heart disease is unfortunate. An individual’s decision not to get a flu vaccine and then die from the flu is also unfortunate. But these are individual decisions that no one has any interest in controlling. However, with COVID-19, it’s completely different. One negligent person who catches COVID-19 has a litany of downstream effects on their contacts, who are at great risk, the health-care workers they — and their contacts, and contacts’ contacts, who eventually get sick — come into contact with, and the health-care system as a whole, which is close to breaking.
So unlike smoking, the flu or any other health-related choice an individual can make, at this point in the pandemic decisions around COVID-19 precautions are not for the individual to make, because the consequences are not just to the individual, but to their fellow citizens. Someone’s choice to assemble outside of their household puts health-care workers at risk and fellow citizens who rely on an intact health-care system at risk.
This is why the temporary restrictions are justified. Our rights exist only insofar as we do not harm others — and right now, in the current situation, our rights to free assembly are harming others.
Evan Wiens is a resident physician and cardiology fellow at the Max Rady College of Medicine at the University of Manitoba.