The biggest surprise for Adrian Owen was just how big it got.
When the British-born, Western University neuroscientist and his colleagues launched their COVID-19 brain study in June of 2020, roughly eight million cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed worldwide which, to the renowned brain scientist, seemed an extraordinary number.
“Honestly, in my worst nightmares, I didn’t think this was going to escalate to involve quite as many people.”
Two years out, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus has infected more than 450 million worldwide. The official death toll stands at just over six million people, including more than 37,000 in Canada.
Now, at the second anniversary mark of the World Health Organization’s official declaration of a pandemic, we’re entering a new phase. Provinces are ditching most mask and vaccine mandates, confirmed case counts have plummeted from Omicron’s January peak and much of the talk now, as Ontario’s top doctor, Kieran Moore, said this week, is about “learning to live with and manage COVID for the long term.”
A new Postmedia-Leger poll, however, suggests most Canadians have little faith their political leaders will make meaningful reforms to the health system to avoid future crises.
How else will governments deal with these wait times?
According to the survey, 75 per cent of respondents agreed that the pandemic exposed significant weaknesses in Canada’s health system that made them question whether the system is truly “one of the best systems in the world.” (There’s no single system. Canada’s health system is made up of 13 publicly funded provincial/territorial programs.)
While most of those surveyed didn’t experience, firsthand, having a scheduled medical test, procedure or operation delayed due to COVID in the last two years, 49 per cent knew someone who did.
More than a third deliberately avoided going to emergency rooms or accessing the health system in other ways because of COVID-related concerns. Only 59 per cent overall said the health system has performed “very or somewhat well,” throughout the pandemic, with British Columbia residents the most (76 per cent) pleased and Quebecers the least (46 per cent).
The majority agreed that “meaningful reforms” are needed to improve the delivery and accessibility of health services, but nearly 60 per cent were “not very” or not at all confident political leaders will look seriously at how systems performed during COVID, and make necessary changes. Half said they would support more private sector delivery of health care, so long as universality is maintained.
Two years of working through a pandemic, and Canada’s health care workers are exhausted and burned out. The system is grappling with nursing and staff shortages against a massive backlog of hundreds of thousands of surgeries that were cancelled due to the pandemic, and that will likely cost billions and years to clear.
Canada has fewer intensive care beds available per capita than most other countries in the developed world, fewer hospital beds overall per 1,000 people than any other OECD country but Mexico, and even before COVID hit “hallway medicine” was a long-running problem.
Remember COVID? Why many of us are suffering from brain fog
We can never again be complacent about pathogens
Manitoba is talking about sending patients to Fargo, North Dakota, to deal with its pandemic surgical backlog.
“That might have been crazy talk before the pandemic,” said Andrew Enns, executive vice-president of Leger’s Winnipeg office. “’Sorry, you’re going to send Canadians to America to get surgery? You’ll pay for it and bring them home?’ But how else will governments deal with these wait times?”
The poll tapped into Canadians’ attitudes when it comes to emerging from the pandemic — what are the expectations for change? “Or, is it just going to be, ‘OK, we made it, let’s carry on and hope we don’t have another one of those,’” Enns said.
The premiers are pushing the federal Liberals to boost Canada Health Transfer payments and increase the federal share of health spending, from 22 to 35 per cent. “The public, I think, will support that,” Enns said. “Will they demand some changes to the system, some innovation? I see signs that the public may be a bit more demanding about, ‘what’s really changing here, in the system, for me as a user of the system, as a customer?’”
Two years in, and people are reflecting on their lives and the future. “The broader groundswell around the Freedom Convoy may have touched a bit of a nerve, that we’re getting a bit more vocal about things we’re not happy seeing going on,” Enns said. “Will we get a bit more aggressive and say, ‘it’s not acceptable that I’m waiting a year to get my knee operated on, or that my mother is waiting six months to get a hip done.’”
Owen has also been reflecting on the long months shaped by COVID. One lesson he’s learned? “Never assume you have reached the top of the mountain until you are down the other side,” he said in an interview with Western News.
Despite the “done with it” narrative, Owen said a slightly longer-term view of the outcome is needed. “This is going to go on for a long time, for a lot of people,” he told National Post.
With hundreds of millions of people infected globally, if even one per cent develops long COVID, “that’s a lot of people,” he said. “That’s going to have a huge societal impact. Because these are people that won’t be able to hold down their jobs, perhaps, maybe they won’t be able to go back to school, or resume their normal daily activities.”
His group’s study unpacking COVID brain fog found that volunteers who reported having had a confirmed COVID-positive test performed significantly worse than a sample of people, pre-pandemic, on cognitive measures of reasoning, speed of thinking and problem-solving speed, though short-term memory wasn’t impaired at all. While it’s not universal, it’s not true for everybody, the worse the COVID symptoms, the more poorly people did, cognitively, three months afterwards. The same was true for older age. For both young and old, the pattern was similar to the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain: The COVID group seemed to be behaving as if they had too little sleep, some months after they had recovered.
While it’s not clear how long any cognitive impairment might last, “I’m more determined than ever to not catch COVID,” said Owen, a professor in Western’s Brain and Mind Institute. He has a pre-existing lung condition. “I was told, early by my doctor, ‘Don’t get COVID because this could kill you.’”
Now that he’s vaccinated and boosted, “I’ve come to the point where I think it’s pretty unlikely I’m going to die if I get COVID,” he said. “I feel fairly confident that it’ll be a bad sort of flu-type thing, and I’ll survive.” But he has a young, fit friend in the United Kingdom who is now 14 weeks out of a “mild” case of COVID and who can’t think straight. “This is a high functioning scientist, younger than I am, and previously very fit,” Owen said. “No reason why you’d look at him and say, ‘Yup, if he gets it, it’s going to be bad.’”
Owen and his wife considered going somewhere warm for March Break, somewhere the family could get away “and find a bit of sun.” In the end, they decided, for them, that it wasn’t worth the risk. “We haven’t travelled for two years. I’m not going to until I’m sure it’s over,” he said.
The Postmedia-Leger poll was conducted online from Feb. 25 to 27 and surveyed 1,519 Canadians 18 years of age or older. If the data were collected through a probability sample, the margin of error would be plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.