Third wave tragedy was preventable

It seems like the closer we get to the end of the pandemic, the more politically fraught decisions on COVID-19 restrictions get.

Last year at this time, most people just stayed home, faced with so much uncertainty. Everyone was told quite early to be ready for a second wave of cases and hospitalizations in the fall so no one was surprised when restrictions on gatherings and travel returned after a summer pause.

Unfortunately, notice of the approaching third wave back in February got lost for many in the midst of the vaccine development and rollout, with production issues, scheduled deliveries unmet, risk of side effects, questions over how long people could go between doses and, of course, who got it first and how.

A third wave seemed to not make sense. How could COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths go up when people, particularly the seniors and vulnerable populations hardest hit, were getting vaccinated?

The wild card was the variants, which has hit younger populations fast and hard. Too many people travelled and got together in late March and early April for Easter, for Passover, for Ramadan, for spring break or just because it was warming up and the days were getting longer. Case counts exploded from there and by the middle of April, most places in Canada and B.C., including Northern Health, were seeing the number of cases reach record levels not seen in either the first or second wave.

In B.C., Dr. Bonnie Henry implored residents during March to stay home, stay safe, be kind, yada yada yada. She saw what was coming but for many she’s become not much different from the boy who cried wolf. Pandemic fatigue is not her fault but the same message delivered the same way by the same person was not the right approach heading into the third wave.

Strong political action, not just in B.C. but also in the other most populated provinces – Alberta, Ontario and Quebec – was needed to support the public health warnings about the third wave.

Political stripe made little difference when it came to pandemic procrastination by provincial premiers. John Horgan, Jason Kenney and Doug Ford didn’t have the nerve to lay down the law hard in their respective provinces, when most religious groups and a growing number of the secular population were furious about the lesser restrictions already in place in late winter and early spring.

So this week, with cases already peaking and showing signs of plateauing, the Justin Trudeau administration in Ottawa is suspending flights for 30 days from India and Pakistan, Ford is giving tearful apologies in Ontario and the Horgan government in Victoria is rolling out more non-essential travel restrictions and dressing up the notion of police enforcement of these restrictions as similar to Christmas campaigns targeting drunk drivers.

Too little, too late, minimal effect. That’s the reaction of many public health experts.

The sad irony is that the people who must be the most frustrated by the third wave are the most silent about it. Doctors, nurses and other health care workers, already burned out from fighting COVID-19 for more than a year and dealing with the anguish of patients and their families, are still in the middle of this war. 

Instead of banging pots and honking horns in thanks outside of hospitals to thank our brave health care workers for their ongoing efforts, most people now seem to be making noise at politicians to loosen up the restrictions.

Sure, the political leaders could have and should have done more, followed the advice of public health officials more.

In the end, however, the small and seemingly harmless actions and inactions of individuals is the bulk of the fuel behind this third wave.

Tragically, more people will still get sick and more will die in our country, in our province and in our communities, just as the bulk of the population gets inoculated from this horrible virus.