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THE IVORY SILO: Closing the page on 2020

By Stewart Skinner

Need a last-minute Christmas gift for an old friend who has moved away? How about an annual subscription to their hometown paper, the Listowel Banner? It has been amazing to watch how Bill, Mike, Dan, and Colin have teamed up with the new suits that took over our beloved Banner and transformed it into the best small-town newspaper out there.

Each week, the pages are full of local news coverage that cannot be found anywhere else, news that matters to anyone who has their heart located in our community. The behemoths that dominate Canadian media could learn something from our small-town paper with an editorial commitment to ensure that all sides in a debate are heard. In the face of a rising cancel culture throughout society, this paper has become a platform that shares diverse opinions and trusts the reader to consider opposing viewpoints and come to their own conclusions. The Listowel Banner is what a newspaper ought to be.

In that vein, the final Ivory Silo installment of 2020 will weigh in once more on the most contentious issue of the year, COVID-19.

We are less than two weeks away from Christmas, a time of joy when we come together to boost our spirits before the drudgery of Canadian winter. It is a time where instead of focusing on ourselves, we focus on each other. Old friends who have moved afar head back home to see the parents and grab a pint with those of us who stuck around. There is a theological reason for many of the celebrations; Christians all over the world recognize this as the time of year when Jesus entered the world. But these celebrations are not confined by theology and regardless of where one feels in a religious sense; the joy for many this time of year is because we come together.

Yet this year we are being told not to. We are being told it is irresponsible to break bread together as families at one of the most culturally significant times of year. Regardless of where a person finds themselves on the fear of COVID spectrum, we now have a scenario where no one is happy, stress and anxiety are running high, and many families are planning to spend Christmas apart.

Sadly, many #COVIDZero proponents in our midst have tried to frame critics of Canada’s COVID-19 response as no different than a person who considers the virus to be a hoax. It is a disingenuous broad brush, as many of us who have been critical are fully aware that this virus is a real threat that should not be ignored. We are just asking hard questions… is this response adequate to the actual risks presented? Is it worth cancelling Christmas? Is it worth missing that visit with an old friend? Is it worth denying happiness to a lonely person who looks to the family gatherings and good food as a respite from the darkness of being alone?

We blast case counts and daily death numbers yet strip them of context. There is a table nestled in the electronic bowels of Statistics Canada, Table 13-10-0785-01, that every person should think about before making that final decision not to buy a turkey. Since the societal responses to COVID-19 are largely considerations of mortality, both our own and those we love, it only seems logical to look at numbers that explain what kills us.

If you don’t want to do the work yourself and you trust the random pig farmer who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about this issue, here are some mortality trends for the Province of Ontario in 2020.

Deaths from Cancer and Heart Disease are on pace to drop by 6 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively, over the five-year average. Deaths from Influenza and Cerebrovascular Diseases (Strokes, Aneurysms, etc.) are also on pace to decline by 11 per cent and five per cent from their five-year average.

The only causes of death set to increase in 2020 over their five-year average is COVID-19, Ill Specified and Unknown, and Information Unavailable.

Put it all together and in 2020, the number of Ontarians who die this year is on track to exceed the five-year average by 2.4 per cent, however it is on pace to be lower than both 2018 and 2019 deaths by over 1 per cent.

What is causing the increase over the five-year average? The ‘Information Unavailable’ (Official total as of September 2020 was 1,630, projected to be 2,445 by year’s end) is only captured in the current year and the deaths will be properly allocated when the necessary information is captured over time. If we assume that these deaths are distributed uniformly across all causes, the increase in deaths due to COVID-19 this year are still lower than the sum of the decreases across all other categories. So, what is driving the increase in mortality? Ill-defined and Unspecified Causes of Mortality, a category that captures deaths that have either confounding clinical and/or laboratory results, or no known cause at all, are projected to more than double over 2019 numbers and is largely responsible for the higher total death levels for 2018-2020 versus the earlier years.

Ontario is on track to have fewer deaths in 2020 than both 2018 and 2019 despite the onset of COVID-19. The proper criticism of a singular focus on mortality regarding COVID-19 responses is just that, the singular focus. It remains to be seen how many long-term symptoms will emerge for those who have contracted the virus and at what prevalence those symptoms may occur. We do not understand what COVID-19 risks may be lurking in the future but just as importantly, we do not understand the true long-term costs of suppressing what makes us feel human, things like Christmas.

There are those that have luxuries that make saying ‘isolate at home’ easier than they realize. Can you imagine isolation without high-speed internet? You may be able to have Zoom calls with the whole family but what about the families that cannot afford it or have no access? You are asking them to be alone at the very time we should be filling our bucket with happiness simply through the act of coming together with friends and family. When you tell people to stay home, or worse still, shame a person for seeking fellowship at Christmas, have you considered what that may do to their mental resiliency?

I will always be biased in this conversation because of my personal experience and the knowledge that there are eight million Canadians dealing with some form of mental illness. COVID-19 has made my own battle with mental illness harder. I have had to divert energy from being a partner, a dad, and a farmer towards simply staying alive. It is that experience coupled with the evidence to date that mortalities are not rising that form the cornerstone of a belief that the efforts to mitigate COVID-19 are causing more harm than good.

There will be no definitive answers on what was right and what was wrong about COVID-19 responses in 2020 for a long time. But as we come to the end of 2020, we find ourselves in a society that fears something as simple as a hug from an old friend. How better to know that something isn’t right than being told to deny ourselves such simple healing acts at a time of year when many of us need nothing more than that to be healthy.

Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, and we will see you in 2021.

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Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at stewart@stonaleenfarms.ca or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.