In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus was forced to sail through a narrow strait guarded on one side by the sea monster, Scylla, and on the other by her counterpart, Charybdis.
He successfully navigated the strait but lost six sailors who were devoured alive by Scylla.
The grisly old Greek myth came to mind when examining the perilous passage through which the government is trying to steer in response to COVID-19.
Justin Trudeau may not be braving sea monsters but his options are equally unpalatable. He said on Thursday that the extraordinary measures to contain the virus could be in place for weeks or months.
Nobody is questioning the government’s call for people to stay home and cancel everything – at least in the short-run.
But Trudeau’s policy nightmare is that at some point he has to make the call on when to attempt to return to some kind of normalcy to ensure Canada doesn’t spiral into economic paralysis.
The threat of mass unemployment is very real, as an exchange with Charles Fallon, president of Montreal-based supply chain management consulting firm LIDD, made clear.
Fallon said he supports the current two-week shutdown and that his staff of 55 engineering consultants are working from home.
But he said a six-week shutdown could see half of his staff being laid off – in a best case scenario. “This holds true not just for me but for every business in the tertiary sector of the economy,” he said.
The government has offered to pay 10 per cent of income costs for eligible small businesses, a measure Fallon said is “laughably inadequate” for a shutdown any longer than two to three weeks.
“As more evidence of the true risks of this virus becomes clear to the population, the more we will question whether we have the right balance between short-term health and long-term health,” he said.
The projections are chilling
That is a debate our society is going to need to have. The case for social distancing is that it slows down how quickly the virus spreads, giving healthcare systems the time to respond.
The reason that Trudeau is being vague on timing is that the most recent modelling suggests it may take more than six months of restrictions to cut the epidemic peak in half. A University of Toronto study suggested that four weeks of intensive social distancing won’t be enough to stop the sharp rise in cases that would overwhelm intensive care units. The study suggested that, with no intervention, there would be 20 times the number of patients requiring intensive care than there are beds.
The projections are chilling. If half the population is infected – a realistic prospect – and two per cent succumb, that means 375,000 Canadians could die of this disease.
There are around 280,000 deaths in this country in any given year, and there would be significant overlap. But that’s still an unacceptable number of lives cut short.
Millennials might dismiss COVID as an older person’s problem. But there are growing signs that young adults are vulnerable too. The Public Health Agency website says nearly 70 per cent of the 770 cases in Canada are under 60 years of age. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention says 38 per cent of those hospitalized were younger than 55. Can any government be seen to be prioritizing jobs over the lives of its citizens?
Yet, if self-isolation slows the disease, it does not stop it. All the research suggests that the same number of people become infected, regardless of social distancing.
There are high hopes that the virus retreats in warmer weather, as is the case with flu. Is continued quarantine going to be justified if the economic damage is ruinous?
Trudeau’s Homeric challenge is to pilot successfully between the Scylla of mass business failures and the Charybdis of falling COVID survival rates.
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