Ontarians will suffer and die for years to come because of COVID-19

OPINION: Thousands of medical procedures and tests were delayed or cancelled because of the pandemic. We’ll be facing the costs well into the future
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 02, 2021
A recent report states that Canada saw 19,000 “excess deaths” for the period of March 2020 to the end of July 2021. (A&J Fotos/iStock)

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A week ago, in this space, I wrote about the emotional toll of COVID-19 — the stress, the frayed nerves, the exhaustion, the heroic struggle not to lose our tempers with poor customer-service reps at banks. (That last one was rather specific in my case, I grant, but the rest applies broadly.) The emotional toll is hard to tabulate, since we each experience it differently. 

Other costs are more easily tallied up.

In a recent report prepared by Deloitte for the Canadian Medical Association, 19,000 “excess deaths” were noted in Canada for the period of March 2020 to the end of July 2021. Excess death is a measurement of how many more people died during a given period than statisticians would expect, given the experience of prior years and known trends in a population’s size and age. Interestingly, this includes roughly 4,000 deaths that cannot be directly linked to the pandemic.

Excess deaths are a damned tricky thing to track and interpret. The roughly 15,000 remaining deaths constitute only half of our known COVID-19 deaths (that tally is a few hundred shy of 30,000, at time of writing). This seems like an error or miscalculation but actually makes sense — COVID-19 was lopsidedly lethal for the elderly and infirm. At the risk of sounding callous, in the most vulnerable population groups, the virus likely simply accelerated the deaths of those who would have died of something else that year anyway. I say this cautiously, well aware of the fact that similar arguments have been used before to downplay the pandemic and its dangers. I have no patience or tolerance for that. But the math is the math: some of COVID-19’s victims were not long for this world, and saying so doesn’t excuse the fact that many jurisdictions failed to keep them safe and, in some tragic cases, allowed them to die alone and in horrible conditions. 

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The above was an aside, but I think an important one. The report’s findings may well be exploited by those seeking to downplay or deny the toll of COVID-19 on this country, and it’s important to be clear that, while some of the victims of COVID-19 were near the end of their natural lives, many thousands weren’t. There are thousands of us who are no longer here precisely because of this pandemic. They’d still be here if it hadn’t happened.

And that includes people who did not die of the virus. That brings us back to the 4,000 excess deaths not believed to be linked to the virus itself.

The CMA report cannot state with any certainty what happened to these people. It deals with aggregate numbers, not individual outcomes. But it’s not hard to see the general outlines. Thousands of medical procedures and tests were delayed or cancelled because of COVID-19’s arrival. Barriers to accessing health care — and delays are very much a barrier — are a known contributor to worsened health-care outcomes (which is a mild way of saying “illness and death”). Are all the unexplained 4,000 deaths due to this? Almost certainly not. But some of them are going to be, without doubt, and that cost will continue accruing for years. People will die in the 2030s after long, brave battles with cancers that might have been easily beaten if caught early enough, but those screenings weren’t available thanks to the pandemic. And so on.

The evidence of this crisis is already mounting. Thousands of procedures are backlogged. Retaining health-care staff is itself a crisis. Self-reported rates of burnout and exhaustion among staff are alarmingly high. Anecdotally, I’m hearing more and more reports of long waits for undeniably essential or urgent care. Some of these anecdotes would horrify you.

This is arguably one of the greatest moral failures of the pandemic. Everything that has prolonged it, from political failures to individuals refusing to get vaccinated, will be paid for by the suffering and death of some of us. Ontarians and Canadians will suffer and die for years to come for want of a bed, a well-rested nurse, or a timely test. These deaths will happen quietly, out of sight, to later be tallied up, at chronological and emotional remove, by number-crunchers at Deloitte, Statistics Canada, and the rest. But they will be real people whose pain and suffering will matter, and their deaths and struggles will break the hearts of those that love them. 

We had plenty of warning before COVID-19 hit that our health-care system was too small and had no margin for emergencies or the unexpected. We didn’t act. As time passes and the dying continues largely out of sight and out of mind, we’ll likely continue short-funding our essential services, health care included, at enormous cost. I truly wish I didn’t believe this to be so, but I do. It is very hard to trust that we will do much to avoid these coming deaths or to prevent future debacles. Perhaps all that we can be sure of in Ontario as 2021 comes to a close is that we may not fund a hospital system enough so that it can save you, and your fellow citizen may not get vaccinated to help end the pandemic whose prolonging may kill you, but after you’re dead, someone will count your death and compare it to historical trends. It ain’t much. But it’s something, I guess. 

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