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Don’t just blame the anti-vaxxers, blame our political elites too

Bob Rae, the current Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations, made an interesting statement on Twitter recently – and by interesting, I mean hypocritical. 

In a four-word tweet, Rae accused the Chinese government of covering up the true number of cases of Covid-19. All while Canada’s own testing capacity has been overwhelmed by the sheer number of Omicron cases, and we don’t know our own number of infections.

The common sentiment among political elites in power is that the massive surge of Omicron cases was inevitable. But is this true?

Speaking of China, here’s an example of how they responded to an Omicron outbreak. A cluster of 20 cases was discovered in Tianjin, and the government’s reaction was to test the entire city of 14 million people in two days.

I’m hardly a shill for the Chinese government as I have no problem acknowledging both their mistakes and successes. It seems to me that this kind of puts the Canadian response to shame, doesn’t it?

Taiwan’s answer to an outbreak of 12 was similar. After 1 employee of the airport security tested positive, all 391 employees of the security company were tested. Some cases in the cluster were related to a singer’s club, of which over 500 have been tested.

This is the strategy that a government that truly cares about the health and safety of the population should adopt.

Political Scapegoating

It is true that people who have fallen for anti-vaccine propaganda are causing problems for Canada’s healthcare systems. These are anti-vaxxers, which do not necessarily represent all of those unvaccinated, but a sizable majority.

The current vaccines don’t seem to be doing much to prevent transmission of Omicron, but they do significantly reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19. We shouldn’t forget that even when vaccines did reduce transmission of previous variants, anti-vaxxers still refused to do the right thing to protect others

Covid-19 patients in hospitals are roughly equal in absolute numbers between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, sometimes even with more vaccinated than unvaccinated. While this is true, the rate of hospitalization is vastly unequal. This is critical.

A visualization of differing rates of hospitalizations between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. From Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes

For example, in BC during the Omicron wave, the unvaccinated represented 26.9 hospitalizations per 100,000 people while the fully vaccinated represented only 5.3. This means that the unvaccinated are getting hospitalized at 5 times the rate of the fully vaccinated. This is a huge problem, and some of this blame lays with those who choose not to get vaccinated.

Justin Trudeau has chosen to place all of the blame on the unvaccinated for the current spike in cases and hospitalizations. The problem is, this is only a half-truth. It is political scapegoating. The other half of the problem is Trudeau himself – and the rest of Canada’s political elites who have declined to improve Canada’s public health system for decades.

There is so much more that our political leaders could have done to prevent, or at least mitigate, the current surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Alternative Approaches (to doing nothing)

Far from being inevitable, the current Omicron wave could have been combatted with many of the same tools we’ve had all along. 

Omicron has been characterized as ‘mild’ in the media, but this is not true. It is milder than the original strain and delta, but it is still severe. 

Long-covid is an aspect often overlooked in the mainstream media in discussions regarding ‘getting back to normal’ and allowing cases to soar. Looking south at the USA, between ten and eighteen million people have come down with long covid.

Maybe letting Omicron rip through the population is a terrible idea? Vaccines do lessen the chance of long-covid to an extent (exactly how much is unknown) but we just don’t know. And that’s kind of the point. We just don’t know, so we should take precautions. Early action is key.

We’ve also seen rising hospitalizations across the country, and a spike in deaths is sure to follow as they already have in countries hit by Omicron such as Denmark and South Africa.

A zero-covid approach would prevent severe disease and death while keeping the economy open:

Given these two risks of mass-long-covid and unnecessary deaths, here is a non-exhaustive list of how Canada’s governments failed to act in the public’s interest (It just so happens they acted in capital’s interest).

1. Not travel bans, mandatory quarantine instead

When South Africa first announced Omicron as a new variant of concern, the response from many countries was to ban travel to some countries in Africa.

The fact is, banning travel from specific countries or regions causes stigma toward people from those regions. This was true from the very beginning of the pandemic. 

On top of that, travel bans are ineffective. By the time the bans were in place, the virus was already in Canada. Also, the virus can just go around to a neighbouring country and then into Canada. 

What we want to do is reduce the number of Omicron ‘seeds’ that are planted in Canada; we want to limit the number of new cases coming in. Mandatory two-week quarantines for all international travellers would largely achieve this. The real question is, why was this requirement removed in the first place? We are still in the pandemic after all.

2. Bump up the boosters

This is a very straightforward idea that could have been implemented in early or middle December but simply wasn’t. For example, BC has only allowed vaccine booster shots for a small portion of the population six months after their second shot.

We could have simply bumped up boosters to 4 or 5 months between doses, especially for those who work with the public such as teachers and retail staff. 

This would have two benefits. It would provide better protection and immunity for many essential workers while decreasing the number of new infections. Boosters have been shown to decrease the risk of getting infected, thereby reducing the chances of passing the virus on to someone else.

3. Ramp up domestic production and distribution of essentials

Remember when the federal government bought a pipeline? Our federal government should show the same urgency in combatting covid as it does in supporting fossil fuel production.

It was known early on in the pandemic that high-quality N95 masks would be an essential tool to hold off outbreaks. Same with rapid tests.

We also knew that this pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon; it will be around for the next few years. Therefore, a rational approach would have been to nationalize the production of these crucial items. We could then distribute these things for free, to every household in Canada using Canada Post.

4. CERB and Lockdowns

Lockdowns were always considered the last resort in fending off a pandemic. Ironically, they were one of the first measures to be implemented because our health systems were inadequate in contact tracing and the virus was already circulating in Canada. 

Lockdowns are still an option to be used if needed. Given that our current peak of 45,000 cases per day is 5 times higher than any other previous wave, had we locked down in mid-December, daily cases would be a fraction of what they are now. Lockdowns worked to dramatically reduce cases before, and would no doubt work again.

The same goes with CERB, which was cancelled about 10 months into the pandemic. We are now 22 months into the pandemic; maybe cancelling CERB was a bit premature? As limited as CERB was, it would have given workers more options in deciding for themselves whether or not to enter into potentially dangerous workplaces.

Neo-liberal Capitalism at the root of the problem

I have no problem with pointing out the many errors in anti-vaccine propagandists’ arguments or having a bit of fun at their expense by pointing out how pathetically wrong they are. Many of their followers tend to act more like the sheep they call others. It is both hilarious and sad to watch.

At the same time, we must put these propagandists in the context of inadequate neoliberal pandemic response. It is simply a fact that lack of action from all levels of government, from all political parties, is a major factor in our current predicament. 

Early action is key to preventing cases, and the alternative actions presented here could have been implemented in early or mid-December, and some much earlier. 

A cost-benefit analysis has been done by our political elites, and they have decided that a certain amount of severe sickness and death is just okay as long as ‘the economy’ gets to keep sputtering along. 

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