Opinion piece

I’ve had the same image running through my mind. It’s of a family: two partners, a mangy dog, several dishevelled kids. They’re standing outside their home, ‘for sale’ sign on the lawn, the clouds piling up behind them, a storm threatening. Their clothes are presentable enough, albeit with a few rips, several seasons out of fashion. Everyone is home as both partners lost their jobs and the children’s school is closed.

One of the adults is carrying a bag of soup tins, tension in her eyes, presumably just returning from the food bank. The other is staring off in the distance, bewildered, searching for something, perhaps seeking out that stable life lost eight months ago. The kids in the picture are smiling but it’s their eyes that give them away. They’re hollow; desperate.

If it was a newspaper drawing the word bubble overhead might read: “Well, at least we didn’t get COVID.”

Now, allow me to be clear. The initial response to the virus – including forced quarantine, enhanced infection prevention measures, and lockdowns – was needed. Initiating contact tracing and case management was, and continues to be, paramount in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

But let’s not forget this was during a time when the virus was unknown and knowledge was scarce. Since then, we’ve had nine months to produce and consider new science: research which clearly shows we are entering a frightening phase of multiple health crises, hidden harms, and indirect effects from this pandemic. Employment volatility. Bankrupt businesses. Substance overdose. Mounting debt loads. Delays in critical surgeries. Broken social supports.

Yes, the current spikes in COIVD-19 cases are scary. But so too are the unemployment figures, domestic violence deaths, vacant storefronts, and housing foreclosures. Since March, evidence has evolved. Our approach to the virus needs to as well. It has to. Otherwise, we will spend decades chasing one pandemic after the next.

York Region’s Medical Officer of Health, Karim Kurji, gets it. Earlier this month, he pleaded with the provincial government to avoid further lockdowns claiming such drastic measures are devastating for businesses and social connectedness. His comments remind us that health needs to be seen as holistic and not just the absence of COVID-19.

Hidden health impacts can’t be ignored any longer. We have to lead with a health equity approach in our programming and decisions. Attention and investment need to expand beyond the virus. Remaining solely-focused on controlling an infectious disease while ignoring health promotion fundamentals will not play out well in the years to come. Large swaths of society were not doing well before COVID. For many, life conditions have since turned dire.   

Kurji’s warnings come on the heels of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam’s, ‘State of Public Health’ report. The annual commentary highlights that pre-existing inequities have contributed to a higher risk of complications related to COVID-19 – a stark reminder that not everyone is experiencing this pandemic the same way.  

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, understands this as well as anyone. She often says we may be in the same storm but we are definitely not in the same boat. Some are better prepared to weather the winds and rain. Others are not.

So, let’s stop telling ourselves the decisions to isolate and close schools and suspend businesses and stay home are in the best interest of everyone’s health. Because they’re not. Whether someone dies from suicide, addiction, domestic violence, missed cancer treatments, or COVID-19 really doesn’t matter. It’s still a life lost and one that could have been prevented.

Hence, the image of the beleaguered family that keeps returning to me. They, and so many others, avoided contracting the virus, but at a very steep cost.

I should probably pitch the idea to a cartoonist. I hope they would approach the drawing with humility, understanding the gravity of the topic. The sketch would be done tactfully, bold accent lines, drawn in classic black ink. Or perhaps as a homage to caricature style: elongated faces, exaggerated frowns; wide, weepy eyes. Ominous shading around the house and yard to emphasize the dreary backdrop; darker still if we don’t act.

Blog post Photo by Kat J on Unsplash

About the author

Benjamin Rempel has served in public health management for more than 15 years and is member-at-large for Health Promotion Ontario. He writes about public health and social justice issues with work featured in The Toronto Star, National Observer, Healthy Debate, and other outlets.