Emily Jaycox editorial

OPINION: When does the cost of the pandemic outweigh the cure?

Albertans need answers if they’re to endure continued restrictions

Albertans have been patient. We’ve been compassionate. Arguably, the majority of us have done all that we’ve been asked. And yet, there seems to be no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Albertans are weary of being ‘patient.’

Endurance is wearing thin.

Even with the hope brought by the start of vaccinations, now we have the ‘third wave’ of variant strains to contend with, and experts are estimating the economy won’t reopen until the end of the summer, at the earliest.

Let’s talk about the cost — the human toll of the ripple effects of the pandemic.

There has been concern that the hyper-focus on the pandemic has led to other important social issues being overlooked, such as suicides and the opioid crisis.

If one examines those issues closer, however, it’s just not that simple.

There is a common belief that suicides rose during 2020 due to the added mental stress of lockdowns and closures.

The claim about the suicide rate has been made repeatedly, sometimes even by public officials, without the evidence to support it, stated a CBC article.

Information released from Alberta Justice shows there were 468 suicides in the province in 2020, which was a decline from 601 in 2019, 630 in 2018 and a high of 647 in 2017. (The data notes that numbers for the past two years may still change, as some investigations may not be concluded yet.)

While every suicide is a tragedy, the data does not support the assumption that COVID-19 has increased suicide rates.

Could the added financial pressures and social isolation have contributed to some deaths due to the detrimental affect on mental health? Absolutely. The purpose of this column isn’t to refute or diminish any personal tragedy, but rather to examine broad claims made about the pandemic and its general impact.

There was a spike in opioid-related deaths in 2020 — that is a measurable fact.

There were 904 opioid-related deaths in the first 10 months of 2020 (compared to 815-related COVID-19 deaths in Alberta in the same time period) according to CTV.

In comparison, there were 627 opioid-related deaths in 2019 and 806 in 2018.

Why the increase in 2020? Premier Jason Kenney had stated COVID-19 may have been to blame because of the initial reduction in access to in-person treatment programs and the claim some people used federal supports to purchase drugs.

However, the opioid crisis is not new. Opioid overdoses have been a concern in Alberta since at least 2000.

While COVID-19 may have exacerbated the existing issue, the availability of these harmful drugs and how new drugs continue to be developed, may be a larger part of the problem.

The opioid crisis is largely attributed to the increase of opioid prescriptions. The majority of opioid-related deaths are unintentional, a large number of which are from poisonings.

(There is an overlap between opioid deaths and suicides. A study by the Government of Canada concluded about 20 per cent of suicides in Alberta from 2000 to 2016 were suicides by drug toxicity, of which 22 per cent were opioid related.)

A press release from Alberta Health Services in June 2020, warned of a new, stronger drug circulating in the Edmonton-area that caused a spike in overdose deaths. How much of the spike in overdoses in 2020 is related to stronger drugs hitting the streets rather than lack of access to treatment?

Notably, significant funding to opioid and addictions treatment was allocated by the UCP in 2020.

So, while the effects of the pandemic on suicides or the opioid crisis aren’t exactly clear-cut, there has been a direct effect on small businesses.

One in six small businesses is at risk of permanently closing, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses. When you include the 58,000 businesses that became inactive in 2020, CFIB estimates Canada could lose 20 per cent of its businesses by the end of the pandemic.

So, when does the cost of the cure outweigh the cost of the virus itself? It is a complicated question, but perhaps one that deserves more attention.

One can only conclude that more patience is inevitably required, as the decisions are ultimately in the hands of the government, and all Albertans can really do is trust that decisions are being made that weigh all the information and outcomes.

It is still needful to put the greater public’s needs above individual wants and desires, no matter how valid feelings of pandemic fatigue are.

Everyone wants to be able to spend time with family and friends and perhaps have a literal shoulder to cry on rather than a Zoom call.

Every person of faith wants to be able to worship in their regular ways, with their community for support and encouragement, and to be uplifted by each other’s presence.

And, everyone should want to see the economy recover and better times to return to Alberta in a safe way.

However, if the sacrifices being made, by individuals, families and businesses, and the cost of the restrictions and shutdowns on society are worth it, then it’s time for the Government of Alberta to put forth some compelling evidence to support it.

Are the restrictions effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19? Are the effects on the majority of those who contract COVID-19 serious enough to warrant shutting down the economy? These are questions Albertans have and they aren’t satisfied with the answers being given.

Active case numbers, even the number of deaths, is obviously not enough explanation or motivation for a growing number of Albertans. If we are to endure continued restrictions and are being asked to ‘hang in there’ for several more months, we need to know why, in a way that we can understand and accept.