COVID-19: The good, the bad and the surprising

Journal of Commerce | Peter Caulfield | October 29, 2021

COVID-19 has made our lives miserable for more than a year and a half. The Journal of Commerce recently asked four western Canada experts on, respectively, medical geography, epidemiology, economics and mental health, what has struck them as noteworthy about COVID-19, including how it compares to previous pandemics.

Tom Koch, a medical geographer at the University of British Columbia, says the good news about COVID-19 is that it isn’t what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls Disease X, a previously unknown pathogen.

“I don’t think the mortality rate is high enough to qualify,” Koch said. “But as a respiratory virus it has followed much the same pattern we have seen many times.”

Disease X will be new, spread quickly and carry a mortality rate that could exceed 30 percent.

“Every century has had its Disease X,” said Koch. “There was plague, recurring periodically between the 14th and 19th centuries. Then yellow fever, which in the 18th century decimated eastern U.S. cities.”

In the 19th century it was cholera, at the end of the First World War it was influenza and in the 1950s it was polio.

“More recently, AIDS, Ebola Virus Disease, SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome,] and West Nile Virus are all evidence of the rapid evolution taking place in the microbial world,” Koch said.

One of the most surprising things about COVID-19 is that it continues to take the world off-guard.

“Respiratory viruses have often had secondary effects that are moderate or long-lasting,” he said. “We saw that in 1918-1919. And this type of virus typically comes in a series of waves, the first weaker than the next.”

Ewald Boschmann, a former Manitoba deputy minister of finance, says what caught his attention was the way the housing market heated up and stayed hot, because the bottom had been expected to fall out of it.

“Another surprise has been the flight of people to the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas, where they can work by computer,” said Boschmann.

He was also unprepared for the large amount of money that has been shelled out by government to individuals and businesses and the speed with which it was done.

“There’s been a jump in the personal savings rate as most people have been socking away the money they received,” said Boschmann. “When things start loosening up again will they start spending it all, and will that lead to a jump in inflation? Prices have been increasing and the risk of more inflation is higher than it has been in quite a while.”

Finally, Boschmann says he is surprised the pandemic has lasted as long as it has.

“It won’t be over until the authorities, who are subject to political pressure from a jittery public,  say it’s over, and that could take a while,” he said.

Melanie Gorman Ng, BC Construction Safety Alliance health and exposure scientist and adjunct professor in the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health, wasn’t expecting COVID-19 would wreak such havoc.

“I never thought such a thing would happen in my lifetime,” said Gorman Ng.

She was also unprepared for the reluctance of many people to accept how the virus spreads.

“According to the evidence, the main way it spreads is through the air, so the way to protect yourself is by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing,” said Gorman Ng. “But many people apparently still don’t believe that. And although hygiene and cleanliness are certainly important, there has been no evidence of surface transmission of the virus.”

Diana Vissers, a workplace mental health expert and founder of Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Ltd., was taken aback by the hoarding of toilet paper in the early stage of the pandemic.

“It’s a fear response and gives hoarders a feeling of being in control of a threatening situation,” said Vissers. “It seems irrational, but it helps keeps us alert.”

Vissers says she is pleasantly surprised that her conversations with employers have become more productive.

“Employers don’t need to be convinced any more about the importance of their employees’ mental health” she said. “I often get calls from them telling me ‘We need help!’ Organizations need to build confidence with their employees that they’re doing the right thing in the way they’re dealing with the pandemic.”

Vissers says a positive aspect of the pandemic is that in workplaces in the future there will be more talk about mental health.

“COVID-19 has led many people to do a values inventory of what is important to them and what is not,” she said. “Now is the time for people to pay attention to the thoughts in their head and to look after their mental health.”