Pandemic numbers give cloudy picture

Several months ago, I highlighted some of the unintended consequences of the pandemic restrictions: people dying alone, delayed surgeries, long-term care residents consigned to their rooms with few if any visitors allowed, increased overdose deaths and delayed medical exams and tests.

These are the prices our government decided were needed to stop the pandemic from killing too many of us. These consequences would all be justifiable if the numbers warranted it. 

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That’s where it gets tricky. In part, the question becomes one of balance. How does one weigh COVID against heart disease and cancer? COVID against drug overdoses? COVID against delayed testing and exams? Denying constitutional freedoms to Canadians should not be done on a feeling or fear. Good science (including the science of mental health) needs to be the guiding factor.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out for myself how deadly the pandemic really was. I quickly realized that without recent numbers of deaths, it was virtually impossible to make any sense out of the numbers we were hearing. I looked for a baseline of deaths, but couldn’t find recent information on deaths in Canada. At the time I think I could only find numbers for 2016.

Lo, and behold, some numbers have appeared. For instance, these numbers from the provincial government show 2020 total deaths, up to December 28, 2020.

2020 39,467

2019 38,379

2018 38,273

2017 38,300

2016 36, 470

2015 35,054

2014 33,626

2013 33,059

2012 32,366

2011 31,790

2010 31,160

So, what do those numbers mean? On the surface it appears that much was sacrificed for no real change in the numbers of people dying. Does that mean the restrictions are an unmitigated success? How to tell? Removing the increase of 850 deaths of (mostly) young people dying by overdose, would bring 2020 deaths to 238 more than 2019. Compare other years with nearly 2,000 more deaths from one year to another. Is this worth a $1.6 trillion hit across Canada to our economy, and people dying from undiagnosed diseases and delays in surgeries, and people dying alone?

What would the numbers have been if we hadn’t imposed severe restrictions? Will we ever know? 

Without other recent data on other causes of death, it is hard to know, because we won’t be able to know of the unintended effects of the restrictions for some time. 

Former federal health minister Dr. Jane Philpot wrote in Macleans on the problem with our numbers, or rather lack of them. In order to make scientific decisions regarding pandemic restrictions, she writes, we have to have timely access to the cause of death. 

We don’t have that, so our politicians and Dr. Henry are shooting in the dark.

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