‘Defend Both the Health and Prosperity of Canadians,’ Open Letter Tells PM

Governments are exaggerating the benefits of flattening the curve while neglecting health and economic costs of lockdown, say health and business leaders
May 19, 2020 Updated: May 19, 2020

As pandemic lockdown measures continue in some form across the country, a group of leaders in a variety of sectors are urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to strive for a better balance in protecting not only Canadians’ health but also their prosperity.

In an open letter to Trudeau, the group criticizes the lockdown policy Ottawa has pursued to combat the spread of COVID-19 and the “stark choice” given to Canadians.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Canadians have been presented with a stark choice—either selflessly shut down the economy to save lives or selfishly worry about the economy and condemn thousands to a vicious illness,” states the letter, signed by 24 leaders in 10 sectors, including business, health care, and public policy.

The letter says governments exaggerated the benefits of flattening the curve while neglecting the cost of the lockdown on people’s health and the economy.

“What seems clear by now is that the lockdown did contribute to flattening the curve, but the measures employed were disproportionate to the objective. Moreover, flattening the curve was not without significant cost to our well-being, whether from the health or the economic point of view,” it said.

The consequences include economic costs like the deficit spending required to support people who are out of work, and the health costs resulting from illnesses such as heart disease or cancers going “untreated or undiagnosed” due to people being afraid to go to the hospital. Other major concerns include mental health and social issues that might be exacerbated by the current conditions.

The letter argues that as the lockdown begins to be lifted and society enters a new phase of the crisis, the government needs to articulate a more balanced strategy.

“We can and must do better,” it advises Trudeau. “It is the responsibility of our leaders to defend both the health and prosperity of Canadians. These goals are not in conflict but reinforce one another.”

The letter also takes issue with the government “shifting the goalposts” on thresholds for reopening the economy and returning to normal.

“The rationale for the lockdown seems to have morphed subtly from managing the outbreak by ‘flattening the curve’ to preventing the illness from infecting Canadians at all, pushing the timeline for a return to some economic activity into the summer, and a return to “normal” a year or more into the distance when a vaccine is available,” it says.

“It’s an impossible goal that is being pursued at an almost incalculably large cost to the well-being of Canadians in exchange for a largely illusory benefit.”

The letter comes as some are questioning the necessity of continuing the lockdown, which has resulted in shuttered businesses, millions of lost jobs, huge corporate losses, and a skyrocketing deficit as the government continues to pay benefits to help those impacted by the shut-downs.

Macdonald-Laurier Institute managing director Brian Lee Crowley, one of the letter’s signatories, says that given the knowledge gained about COVID-19 up to now, it’s time for a change in direction.

“Early on, when we didn’t know very much about the virus and we didn’t want the health-care system to be overwhelmed, our objective with the lockdown was to flatten the curve, which we have achieved. And now Trudeau mentioned a few weeks ago that we could be doing this for almost two years as we wait for a vaccine. But we can’t afford to do this,” he says.

“We need to get beyond this mentality where public authorities can enforce the limits the way they have.”

The letter urges Trudeau to show the “courage to lead us in a better direction,” noting that Canadians need a “clear indication” of how to move toward normality.

“Any easing of the lockdown is going to increase the infection rate—the crucial question is how we can do it without increasing the death rate,” it says.

“This is what we are looking for from you, not endless announcements of programmes to pay us while we wait. We need as much information as possible about the risks of returning to work and how to mitigate them while leaving the final decisions in the hands of local workers and employers who know their circumstances best.”

Having reached this point, says Crowley, “we need to have more faith in people to act sensibly when it comes to COVID-19.”

“We’re not in the same state of ignorance that we were in at the beginning,” he notes.

Since a lot more is known now about the disease and the country has done better than what may have been initially forecast, Crowley says Ottawa should aim toward getting people back to work instead of continuing “putting this strain on the public purse.”

“I understand that it was necessary to get people to cooperate and difficult decisions had to be made,” he says.

“But it’s known now that COVID is not as dangerous as we thought it might be and the implications of it are manageable. We know better how to handle it, and it’s time now for government to start dialling back the rhetoric and turn COVID from a big scary boogeyman into something that is a manageable public health issue.”