The Niagara Independent, October 30, 2020 – Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam released the annual report of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) this week providing statistics on fatalities directly attributed to COVID-19, and on the fatalities and addictions consequential to the country’s management of the virus crisis. The report also features a clarion call for structural change to Canadian society that would have greater authority transferred to public health officials.
On Wednesday Dr. Tam began her press conference reporting a milestone statistic, “Sadly, we are reporting over ten thousand deaths for the first time today, with 10,001 deaths among the total cases to date.”
Dr. Tam then presented the PHAC report, informing Canadians of other sobering numbers. Since the first cases in March 2020:
- there have been 222,887 recorded cases of COVID-19
- of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized 92 per cent had at least one underlying health condition
- of those recorded cases, 4.5 per cent died
- a total of 96.7 per cent of the deaths were over 60 years of age
Health Canada further breaks down the total deaths per province: Quebec has 6,172 (62 per cent), Ontario has 3,103 (31 per cent) and the rest of Canada has 726 (7 per cent) of the country’s COVID-19 fatalities.
The PHAC report sheds light on COVID-19’s broader consequences revealing a troubling story of deteriorating health for many in 2020. Opioid deaths have skyrocketed; mental health issues are a concern; and alcohol, tobacco and drug use are increasing. In summarizing the grim picture painted by PHAC, CBC news stated: “Canadians used to be among the happiest people in the world. That’s changing.”
Perhaps the most startling data produced is on Canada’s opioid drug toll. PHAC reports that in B.C. this year, there were more than 100 drug overdose deaths per month for six consecutive months (March to August), and more than 175 such deaths each month in May, June and July. In July, paramedics responded to an average of 87 overdose calls a day – 2,706 over the month.
As an aside, an Insights West survey of British Columbians found that their fear of COVID-19 eclipsed the issue of drug overdose. Those surveyed are more concerned about the coronavirus than opioids (91 to 81 per cent) even though between January and July the Province reported 195 COVID-19 deaths and a disturbing 911 overdose deaths.
PHAC used surveys by Statistics Canada to report that Canadians have increased their use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs during this pandemic. Alcohol consumption was up 19 per cent, tobacco smoking rates up 3.9 per cent, and cannabis use climbed 8.3 per cent. Couple this data with the fact that more than 60 per cent of Canadians are spending more time on the Internet and TV and it is evident that our population’s physical health has been considerably impacted by the COVID-19 related stress and the pandemic lockdowns.
Mental health and child abuse is also a concern for public health officials. Through the lockdowns, women and children are trapped within their abusive relationships. PHAC flags abuse reports from child welfare agencies, but the report states, “This may be the result of fewer detection opportunities, as children are likely to be isolated at home and without community involvement.”
Statistics Canada also has tracked Canadians feelings of “happiness.” In 2018, 68 per cent of Canadians reported excellent or very good self-perceived mental health. This figure has been dropping like a stone through 2020, and in May sank to 48 per cent. Many Canadians feel isolated and lonely: 70 per cent said they were concerned about maintaining social ties and 54 per cent of respondents with kids said they were very or extremely concerned about their children’s loneliness. PHAC found that Indigenous people, the disabled, and low-income Canadians have reported experiencing more suicidal thoughts in 2020.
On the issue of suicide, Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem reported this week the economy is still down 700,000 jobs since pre-pandemic – far worse than the peak 425,000 job loss in 2008-09 recession. A new University of Toronto study suggests that Canada’s economic challenges, particularly unemployment, could lead to an increase of up to 27 per cent in deaths by suicide (as many as 2,114 above the Canadian average) by the end of 2021. U of T Professor Dr. Roger McIntyre observes, “We’re seeing some of the highest unemployment rates in this country since the early 1980s, we’ve seen the loss of 15 years of job creation in Canada in only two months.” Prolonged unemployment will weigh heavily on Canadians’ minds.
To address these disturbing health and wellness trends, Dr. Tam and the PHAC recommend that our government leaders need to accept a health equity approach that would prompt a beneficial structural change in our country. Canada’s top doctor prescribes three actions for government (at all levels):
1) focus on health and societal inequities and the special needs of the disadvantaged;
2) emphasize social cohesion to have Canadians observe public health measures; and,
3) provide more resources to Canada’s public health system to strengthen its capacity.
Tam stated, “I do see COVID-19 as a catalyst for collaboration from health, social and economic sectors… It’s shone a spotlight on the importance of public health. What I’m really, really keen to see is that this continues… The report is calling for this to be a more sustained approach.”
Yet, it seems a stretch to think Canada’s public health officials’ ideological advice on societal transformation will help the opioid crisis, the addictions, the conflicted mental health issues or the disturbing rise in suicides. Sun News columnist Anthony Furey faults Dr. Tam and the PHAC report for attempting to frame the pandemic data “through the lens of academic progressivism” and he advances that it is time to start questioning their agenda. Furey writes, “One gets the impression after reading this report that the pandemic has been a happy accident for public health ideologues, an opportunity for them to roll-out their preconceived notions to a very captive (hostage?) audience.”
With 10,001 COVID-19 deaths and counting, as Furey suggests, Canadians would be best served if Dr. Teresa Tam and her PHAC colleagues applied their expertise to the medical and health issues of the day – and left the societal and economic challenges to the country’s duly elected representatives.