Complacency is our enemy in the fight against a deadly contagion

By Jim Brown

Think one of the world’s longest bridges will protect Canada’s smallest province against the coronavirus? Think again.

The coronavirus will wash over our shores, and probably sooner than many of us expect.

We can’t wish it away, like anti-vaxxers wish measles away by not vaccinating their children against this serious, preventable childhood disease. Unvaccinated kids risk blindness, hearing loss, encephalitis, immune system suppression and even death from their parents’ wilful ignorance.

Will the coronavirus be the “Big One” that many experts predict is long overdue? We can only hope not. In the meantime everyone should practise washing their hands thoroughly every day – as many times as they can.

One possible bright side could be lower rents for modest and low income Islanders.

Housing and rental prices will likely fall everywhere, including Prince Edward Island. That’s potentially good news for Charlottetown renters, facing one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country. And, with travel slumping, Airbnbs may convert back to regular, long term rentals.
That is, of course, if the worst fears of infectious disease authorities come true.

The coronavirus has a two to three per cent death rate, which may not seem like a lot but it more than dwarfs that of the latest strain of influenza, which kills .05 to .5 per cent of all those infected. And yet thousands of Canadians, largely frail seniors, die every year.

If only we had a plan to deal with a pandemic. But wait, we do! The Prince Edward island Pandemic Influenza Contingency Plan for the Health Sector was released in 2006 and we hope it’s been updated at least a few times since.

The plan anticipates 140 to 200 deaths, 600 hospitalizations, 26,000 people with symptoms severe enough to require a visit to an emergency department and about 40,000 people with symptoms severe enough to keep them home from work for a minimum of half a day.

Imagine what the toll would be on our Island economy. Remember, we have a population of less than 157,000 and our hospitals are already working at full or close to full capacity.

The coronavirus, which got its start in an illegal wildlife meat market in China, has now been found in dozens of countries around the world and is spreading at an alarming rate despite the World Health Organization’s best efforts to contain it.

In Japan, Korea, Italy and other hard-hit countries schools and churches are closing and sporting events are being cancelled or moved to empty stadiums. Large gatherings have been discouraged by authorities, but all it’s done so far is delay the inevitable.

It is truly disturbing to contemplate what we, as Islanders face, if the worst happens and the Pandemic Influenza Contingency Plan for the Health Sector lays it all out in clinical detail.

“In a pandemic, the number of deaths in a six to eight week wave is estimated to be similar to that which typically occurs over six months in a non-pandemic period. As in the health care system, demands on funeral industry services will increase at the same time as their workforce is reduced due to illness or caregiving responsibilities. A mass fatality plan for a pandemic will be established to deal with the predicted increase in deaths.”

Where do we put the bodies when morgues fill up? Are our rinks big enough and can they be kept cold long enough?

Are we prepared to wall ourselves in our homes – to self-quarantine – should things get really bad? Do we have enough food to live apart from others who may be infected, or to protect others if we are infected?

Do we have two weeks or more of food and other essential supplies?

Do we have enough grief counsellors?

Can we replace essential workers in hospitals, schools, utilities, police and fire services and public works departments? What about our fishing and farming sectors?

Already in cities throughout North America gowns and face masks are disappearing from store shelves and hand cleanser, if it can be found, often costs five or six times the regular price.

What happens when our ‘just in time’ delivery services are shut down because workers are sick and trains and trucks aren’t operating?

Are we ready for that?

God, I hope so…

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