Saltwire Article: Nova Scotia’s ‘living with COVID’ strategy backfires

SHIRA LURIE • Guest Opinion. The original article can be found HERE.

Shira Lurie is an assistant professor of history at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post and The Toronto Star. You can follow her on Twitter @ShiraLurie.

We once showed the world how to successfully live with coronavirus — so what happened?

In March, when Nova Scotia announced the removal of COVID-19 protections, Premier Tim Houston and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang explained that it was “time to move away from two years of crisis response” and learn to “live with COVID.”

Four months into this strategy and it is clearly not working. Half of all Nova Scotian COVID deaths have occurred after the government lifted protections — that’s over 200 people, including 35 primary caregivers. Case counts are up, wastewater levels of the virus are up, hospitals are overcrowded, businesses are short staffed, and we now have the second highest COVID hazard risk in the country.

We are not successfully living with COVID. But we once did.

For the first half of the pandemic, Nova Scotia was one of the few places where life continued in relative normalcy. In November 2020, the New York Times published a piece exalting the province as “a COVID-free world” that showed “beating back the virus is possible.”

“It’s baffling to watch the epidemic in the United States spin wildly out of control, knowing it could easily be different,” observed the author.

Nova Scotia created and maintained this oasis by keeping case rates low. The government utilized protections like mask mandates, widespread testing and quarantines to minimize transmission and so avoid the crushing exponential growth suffered elsewhere.

Rather than curtailing individual freedom, these measures enhanced it. While other provinces locked down, Nova Scotian schools and businesses remained open. While other places saw mass suffering and death, Nova Scotians remained relatively unscathed.

But when the government changed, so did the province’s pandemic approach.

In his first few months as premier, Tim Houston flirted with ending protections, like asymptomatic testing and mask mandates, but ultimately reversed course. Then Omicron hit in December and triggered an unprecedented spike in cases.

But rather than making a firm commitment to bending the curve, the government articulated a new tolerance for high case rates in the province. They then used this tolerance to lift protections, predictably fuelling further transmission, which they spun as acceptable. “The increase in positive tests and hospitalizations shows the impact of both a highly infectious strain of COVID-19 and the second phase of our reopening,” Dr. Strang acknowledged in March. But while “we have more community transmission,” he insisted that “none of this is unexpected.”

The fallout

The unchecked spread of COVID through the population has resulted in increased death and disease. It has pushed an already strained health-care system to the brink, with hospitals cancelling surgeries and reporting ER overcrowding, long wait times and closures. Staff shortages for other critical services, like transit, have resulted in route cancellations. And these short-term disruptions likely pale in comparison to the future social impacts of long COVID and post-COVID health issues that one in five people will experience, even after a mild case.

“The reality is, the more we let COVID control our daily lives, the longer we will see the negative impacts,” Houston has maintained. But lifting protections has clearly put COVID in control and the negative impacts abound.

Despite the government’s insistence, it’s obvious that life has not returned to normal. That’s because COVID is not the monster under the bed — the danger that recedes the less attention you pay it. It is the forest on fire; ignoring it only makes it less manageable.

Of course, new variants will continue to pose a challenge. But the only way through the pandemic is to return to the strategy of keeping cases low. It will dramatically reduce the excess suffering and death of Nova Scotians. It will relieve the pressure on health care and other services. It will save many people from the long-term consequences of this virus.

We have proven it is possible and we can do it again.

The opposite — the idea that society can function properly amid the unchecked transmission of a highly contagious airborne virus — is a fairy tale. And it won’t come true no matter how hard we wish it.

If we are going to live with COVID, we need to also live in reality.

As taken from the original article