COVID-19: The Entire World Turned Upside Down

By Angus Gillespie

It was about this time last month when we were putting the final touches on the contents for our March issue. Never could anyone have imagined the unthinkable horror that was about to be unleashed upon the world. What started out as a little-known and scarcely talked about virus originating nearly 12,000km away in Wuhan, China rapidly ascended into the largest medical and economic emergency like the world has never seen – at least not in our time on this planet.

There’s an unsettling, eerie quietness permeating throughout towns and cities that would normally be bustling with boisterous activity. The streets are empty in places such as Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, New York City and Los Angeles to name but a few. Casinos in North America are closed for the first time in history, already marked by billions of dollars in lost revenue. In Las Vegas there was a problem when it came to locking up because many of the casinos have no outer doors to the street. If you’ve been to Sin City you’ll know that casino entrances off the main strip are enormous – and open 365 days a year, so there’s never anything to lock. It all changed in March when the casinos were ordered to cease operations and so they had to board up their expansive free-flowing entrances with makeshift coverings in order to prevent loitering on the premises.

There’s a desolate feeling with no live sports, theatre or music concerts to keep our minds blissfully occupied. No neighbourhood bars to sing karaoke or clubs to dance the night away. No NHL, no NBA, no start to the MLB season. No Masters golf tournament in April. No Indianapolis 500 in May. No Wimbledon in June, and in fact not at all this year, marking its first outright cancellation since World War Two. As the calendar moves forward, more famous events will also be postponed or cancelled. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will now be the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Stock markets reacted by posting historical record losses but also manifested resiliency by bouncing back in many instances. For the faint of heart, it’s best not to watch that daily, if not hourly, gut-churning rollercoaster ride. Investors’ optimism has been up and down like a yo-yo with their outlook based on the latest information, and oftentimes nothing more than rumours and innuendo of the day.

Brief History

The novel coronavirus disease was first discovered in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million people. Renamed COVID-19 it is an infectious disease perpetuated by severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The COVID-19 virus is primarily spread during close human interaction by way of respiratory droplets produced when people cough or sneeze. The virus can live on surfaces up to 72 hours. The recommended measures for slowing and/or halting the spread is frequent hand washing, and the avoidance of touching one’s face, nose or mouth. From there it is a matter of invoking adequate social distancing in conjunction with social isolation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland declared the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) at the end of January and a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. When a pandemic is declared it is due to the number of countries impacted as opposed to the severity of the virus’s virulence, the latter of which seems to be how a significant percentage of the population mistakenly understands it.

Societal Impact

As the number of Canadian cases continues to escalate, all schools and non-essential businesses have been shuttered with students and workers hunkering down in their homes. Inexplicably, there was a three-week period when toilet paper became worth its weight in gold. The notable change in consumption habits was a clear sign that some people felt hoarding was somehow the best way to beat what they believed was a long-lasting impending doom.

To generate perspective, the vast majority of Canadians would fully recover if they were to contract the virus. Some would be hit by mild symptoms while others might feel lousy for 10-14 days, much like influenza, and then be fine. But upon examining the wider picture there is a significant segment of the population that would not be able to successfully fend off the virus, namely those with preexisting, underlying health issues and compromised immune systems. This is most often senior citizens, but it can – and does – impact people of all ages. The most tragic individual case to date occurred at Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ontario where, as of publication, 20 residents, and a spouse of one of those residents, died due to an outbreak of COVID-19 with fears more may yet perish. As many as 35 workers in the home exhibited symptoms of having the virus, with 24 confirmed.

Virtually every industry has been clobbered by the drastic but necessary measures having been invoked by governments including the likes of construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, tourism, education, retail, transportation – the list goes on and on. Chinese tourists alone generate an estimated $2 billion annually in Canada. By June it’s expected the losses will be at $550 million according to Tourism Minister Melanie Joly, which is a figure that will only be driven up the longer this continues. In Ontario, one out of every 10 restaurant owners say the pandemic has already forced them to close permanently and fear is that the number will grow significantly as time goes on.

Prior to the nationwide declaration that social distancing was necessary the province of Alberta was already languishing in economic despair due to the dire state of the oil and gas industry. Just before the coronavirus began unleashing its fury on North America there was the ongoing feud between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which resulted in both countries dramatically increasing the output of oil on a daily basis. Originally, Saudi Arabia had lobbied OPEC nations to reduce the output due to a glut on the international markets. The rationale was that less oil would bring the price back up. However, Russia refused that suggestion. At last report OPEC was claiming a ceasefire was imminent. Oil immediately responded by increasing in value by 20%, but remained down more than 50% overall.

Meanwhile, countries such as Canada have once again been caught in the middle. With so much oil available on the international market the price bottomed out. It’s actually gotten to the point where companies are running out of places to store their excessive inventory. But for Canada, it’s even worse than for American producers. West Texas Intermediate has been selling for about $25 per barrel and Brent crude also in that range, but a barrel of Canadian western oil was selling for a scant $3.82 per barrel. It’s estimated the cost to extract that oil out of the ground, get it into a drum and shipped to its destination costs anywhere from $10 to $15 per barrel.

Regardless of the industry, the single biggest issue for almost every business is cash flow, which directly determines the ability to generate more revenue. Cash is king and those companies that have it, or can leverage short-term loans, have a greater chance of survival. There will be government assistance, but timing will be of the essence in determining if those companies that can hang by the fingertips long enough for it to arrive.

Government Stimulus

Both the Bank of Canada and the U.S. Federal Reserve have slashed interest rates to about as low as they can go without being in negative territory. Both have an overnight trendsetting rate of 0.25%. The hope is the major banks in both countries will get the message and lower their rates. Some credit cards are still charging exorbitant rates that go far beyond the boundaries of earning a comfortable profit. But there are shareholders to appease, and they always want more. A bank could make $1 billion in quarterly profit, but if the projections to shareholders had been $1.2 billion it likely would lead to layoffs as a means of getting closer to the desired number for the next quarterly report. Stiffer regulation is needed from the finance ministry about reigning in some of these banks, whose greed is nothing short of abhorrent.

An agreement was reached in the House of Commons — and passed by the Senate — for the federal government to access $107 billion in relief aid for Canadians in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. The $107 billion is an increase from the original $82 billion. The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act passed third reading in the House. The Senate has also approved the bill, and it received Royal Assent from the Governor General.

However, it took an extra day after the ruling Liberals tried to quickly pass through extremely controversial authoritarian clauses that would have given them widespread sweeping spending and taxing powers until the end of 2021. The Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebcois all balked at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attempts to obtain that through what is widely being described as an overreaching attempted power grab. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer says it’s unfortunate the delay was required, but said there was no way the other parties were going to give Trudeau such additional governing powers, which would have amounted to giving him a blank cheque on spending. Instead, for a term limit of six months, Finance Minister Bill Morneau will have the authority to spend money without the usual required Parliamentary approvals. Policy is constantly being changed on the fly, which only adds to the difficulty of rolling out the various financial aid programs.

There are so many moving parts with government modifications being implemented almost every day, but the stimulus packages presented to date still won’t be enough for many companies. As of publication there was a sweeping commitment from the federal government to provide the necessities of life for the millions of Canadians who’ve been impacted by businesses being closed – some temporarily – others unfortunately will be permanently. Compensation packages are retroactive to March 15 when the clampdown really began to take hold.

Following repeated pleas from various national associations — including the Canadian Federation of Business — about providing greater enterprise support, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the wage subsidy to be provided to qualified small and medium-sized businesses was being raised to 75%, up from the originally-announced 10%. The subsidy program is available as of April 6.

According to some economic reports the 10% subsidy would likely have only helped about 5% of all companies to survive, while the remaining 95% would have still been unable to pay staff. Any Canadian businesses whose revenue has decreased by 30% or more due to the pandemic will be eligible for the 75% subsidy, regardless of the number of employees on staff.

“This is about making sure that people are still getting paid whether they work for a business that employs 10 people or 1,000 people,” Trudeau said to reporters outside his Rideau Cottage home.

Another obstacle regarding the subsidy is that it will be extremely difficult for “non-essential” businesses to make use of it. A majority of companies require their employees to be at the physical location of the company in order to carry out their work and generate revenue. Otherwise, it would seem those companies would have to have the cash flow on hand to cover the 25% of the wages, all the while no new revenue is coming through the doors because their workers must remain at home having been deemed “non-essential”. Therefore, the subsidy would only be of benefit to companies whose employees are able to continue to expedite their tasks from a home office and keep the revenue train moving forward, even at a reduced rate.

The federal government is also offering interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to businesses with payroll expenses between $50,000 and $1 million per annum. In certain cases the first $10,000 repayment may be waived. This route may be necessary for a number of companies to take with cash flows now at a minimal level, if not non-existent. It means applying for a loan or face the distinct possibility of having to close permanently.

The employee wage subsidy will be on the first $58,700 earned, which means a cap of $847 per week.

An additional $12.5 billion is being made available for immediate operational cash flow requirements. HST and GST payments are being deferred until June, giving businesses more time to make their regular payments.

Prime Minister Trudeau said Canadians should expect to see money 10 days after making their application. About 2.2 million people have already sent in EI claims with more to come and 13,000 government workers doing the processing. An estimated 400,000 of those EI claims had been processed as of April 3. It remains to be seen how efficiently the rest of the process unfolds. Trudeau also made it clear that businesses must not to take advantage of any of the programs being offered. Those that do would face serious consequences.

South of the border, American Democrats and Republicans eventually managed to put their bickering aside long enough to reach an agreement on a $2 trillion economic stimulus package. Officials met for more than 15 hours of bipartisan talks, before the House of Representatives and Senate passed the bill into law. Negotiations took five days to complete at a time when Americans became increasingly agitated.

Anarchistic Response

A day after Trudeau made the announcement about Canadians being eligible to receive unemployment insurance of up to $2,000 per month it provided some relief for Canadians, who have multiple creditors to pay every 30 days, or less. However, a major setback occurred towards the end of March when Service Canada locations closed their doors and the government said unemployment insurance claims would have to be made online, other than specific exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

Originally, some people mistakenly assumed Service Canada offices had closed because workers refused to stay on their jobs out of fear of contracting the virus from others. While that cannot be entirely dismissed, it was by far the secondary reason. The primary reason why most workers refused to go back in to work at their Service Canada locations the following day was due to excessive and threatening harassment from some people waiting in the long lines. The majority of government workers filling out the processing claims are women, who said they felt intimidated and afraid of possibly being the victim of physical violence. Nobody should have to work in such a threatening environment.

The vast majority of Canadians have heeded the directive to self-isolate, but the message wasn’t reaching everyone. Whether people believe this is all an overreaction or not is irrelevant at this point. Those with the powers to do so decreed it to be, and so we must all capitulate. Failure to have everyone following the social distancing and self-isolation policies will only result in an ongoing revolving door of frustration and the curve will take much longer to flatten.

Then there are the price-gouging enterprises and individuals who shamelessly looked to profit during people’s times of need and shortage of products. Nobody has come down harder on such unscrupulous heathens as Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who made it quite clear his government will not tolerate such unacceptable markups. Companies found to be in violation will face criminal charges and fines to a maximum of $100,000.

Frontline Workers

A lot of wonderful, caring individuals have stepped forward to take a leading role. Doctors and nurses have come out of retirement to assist with an overwhelmed healthcare system. Some are working at temporary medical treatment centres while others are providing telehealth advice and information on the internet.

Frontline workers have been providing excellent care for those afflicted with the virus. It’s crucial that these people are kept healthy throughout this pandemic. Those on the front lines are most at risk, not simply of catching the virus, but of contracting its most virulent forms. As such, there are constant requirements for medical supplies including masks for the medical personnel and ventilators for some of the more severe patient cases.

Doctors and nurses are not just performing magnificent services in the emergency rooms, but also in outpatient clinics, general wards and labs, at reception, in offices and other areas of each hospital. Canada’s former Minister of Health, Dr. Jane Philpott, is also on the front lines, providing test screening at her COVID-19 assessment centre outside Markham Stouffville Hospital.

The regular annual influenza seasons can bring about added stress but COVID-19 takes it one giant step further. Because of the heightened risks, more time is being devoted to enhanced cleaning, and the need to replenish surgical masks on a much more constant basis.

Other services deemed essential, including police, fire, grocery store workers and so many more have all stepped up in a unified effort to get us through these trying times.

Meanwhile, companies across Canada have shifted their primary manufacturing efforts and are now providing medical supplies. Canada Goose, known for its luxury winter parkas and vests, has committed to producing scrubs and patient gowns. The gear is being generously donated free of charge.

Epicentres

Countries such as China, Italy and Spain have been particularly hard hit while others such as Germany and South Korea have managed to contain the virus with much more efficiency. In Canada, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have recorded the most number of cases. The Greater Toronto Area has accounted for 60% of the known cases in Ontario to date. Vancouver and Montreal have also been hardest hit in B.C. and Quebec, respectively.

It’s crucial to put facts before fear. It is also reasonable to assume that many people will have contracted COVID-19, assuming they had the regular flu, recovered from it and moved on. For that reason, we’ll never truly know how many of those people would fall into the “cases” category but without a doubt it would be a sizeable number. With that in mind, the mortality rate would be a reduced percentage to be sure.

Bangladesh is a country with a population of 164 million and refugee camps that are far more densely populated from a spacing perspective than New York City. The COVID-19 virus was first detected there in early March. No lockdown measures were incurred until March 26. To March 30, the death toll stood at five. Surely they don’t have better healthcare physicians, drugs or technology. Do they have a type of immunity that people elsewhere do not? Possibly. But if nothing else it shows how this disease is far more worrisome in some regions than others.

Some of the hardest hit regions are where the population bases are exceedingly dense, such as New York City. In large metropolitan cities there are thousands upon thousands of people quite literally working and living on top of one another in a condensed geographic area. There are only so many places to self-isolate in such a small landscape without coming into contact with other humans, even when heartily trying to avoid it. Living on the 30th floor of a Toronto condo building means a long ride up and down the elevator, where it’s all but certain there will be more than five people at close proximity for at least part of the journey. While it is true medical care is at a higher level in large urban areas it is also much easier to spread a nasty virus.

At the time of publication medical experts were unclear as to whether the epidemic in Canada would peak in two weeks, two months or beyond. All we can do is follow the guidelines set out by the medical experts and governments. The quicker everyone complies, the quicker we can get back to our regular way of life.

Politics and Media

In Canada and the United States there have been both positive and negative chapters in providing response throughout this terrible ordeal. For the most part, political parties have managed to put aside the bickering and come together to pass emergency bills – the House of Commons and Senate here in Canada, and the House of Representatives and the Senate south of the border. But by no means did everyone pledge ‘one for all and all for one.’ There were instances where both federal governments attempted rather widespread overreaching in terms of obtaining the powers they wanted to give themselves during the global pandemic.

Political affiliations aside, leadership has been shown by the likes of Prime Minister Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland as well as all the provincial and territorial premiers and other government officials. Now is not the time for arguing about who would make the best leader.

South of the border, one of Donald Trump’s most obvious fundamental shortcomings is his incessant need to share his brainstorming ideas in public, rather than doing it quietly behind closed doors with his most trusted advisers. In that aspect, he’s giving himself unnecessary grief. It should be noted that at no time did Trump ever say “we will be easing off on restrictions by Easter” yet that is how it was breathlessly portrayed by certain news media outlets. He said he had “aspirations” to do so. That distinction was blurred in the traditional media and also online social media.

When push came to shove and Trump was faced with the grim reality that 2.2 million Americans could perish if social distancing was not put in place continued until at least April 30 (and perhaps beyond), he relented and took the sage advice of medical professionals, most notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Dr. Deborah Birx, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator & U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.

It is mystifying why Trump would ponder such serious options so publicly, where there is already more than enough panic-stricken people who wind up being absolutely terrified by what is tantamount to irresponsible public messaging. Trump could save himself a lot of criticism if he learned to filter his comments, but he’s a 73-year-old billionaire filled with self-assurance and bravado and has been that way all his life. He couldn’t change his personality if he tried and it’s instinctive for him to fire off salvos against those who he finds most annoying.

Trump’s adverse relationship with some members of the media has gotten even worse during the COVID-19 crisis. On several occasions he has forcefully lashed out at CNN, saying the media outlet spews “fake news.” Admittedly, the “gotcha” questions have grown extremely tiresome. There’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it.

There is no denying Trump has been wrong on many issues, pats himself on the back too often and has shown a high-degree of poor judgment in the handling of some issues. However, he’s also been right about many things as well. Failure to recognize that means he’s penetrated the head space of people who can no longer process rational, unbiased thoughts when they hear him speaking, and that is every bit as dangerous to our global society as the people who find Trump a menace. Make no mistake – Trump Derangement Syndrome exists. People unquestionably have valid concerns about Trump in terms of how he conducts himself and the manner in which he expedites his power, oftentimes with a blustering, rude, aggressive tone. But there is also no shortage of unhinged individuals who seem to be perilously close to a nervous breakdown based on disturbing, irrational responses to what Trump says and does. Lashing out in such anger is a sign of immense frustration and it’s happened to a number of people who normally would not react with such scorn and discontent, and frankly it’s more than a little unsettling to see such reactions.

Criticisms of the U.S. government go far beyond Trump. The distancing of ideals between the Democrats and Republicans is a million miles apart and widening with each passing day. The partisanship emanating from both political parties is at a level never before seen in that country.

Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn drew a tremendous amount of backlash on social media and from Asian American advocates after he made the statement that China “was to blame” for the spread of COVID-19 due to “a culture where people eat bats, snakes and dogs and things like that.”

Cornyn went on to say, “These viruses are transmitted from the animal to the people and that’s why China has been the source of a lot of these viruses like SARS, like MERS, the Swine flu, and now the coronavirus, so I think they have a fundamental problem.”

The CDC says the novel coronavirus has its origins in bats and might have jumped to humans through a “wet market,” or a live animal market, in Wuhan.

In looking at other epidemics, the Swine flu was initially detected in the U.S. in 2009, and MERS was first identified in Jordan in 2012, according to the CDC. The first cases of SARS were first reported in China’s Guangdong province in 2002.

Conspiracy Theorists

There are many different theories as to how this version of the coronavirus mutated. We’ve heard everything from it having originated in bats and rats that were eaten by people in China followed by a third-party host that was able to transmit the disease to humans. There are also conspiracy theories that this entire epidemic points to being a developed bioweapon either maliciously or accidentally released in China, originating at one of its scientific labs. To date there is absolutely no verified proof of such allegations. If the intent was for the Chinese was to purposely spread disease in such a bio-chemical warfare manner it would have to work on the assumption the State government would be fine in knowing many of its own citizens would ultimately be amongst the casualties.

Governments closing public and private places, urging physical distancing and requiring travellers to self-isolate for 14 days to slow the spread of COVID-19 would be viewed as state control tactics by those who believe in conspiracy theories. For those people, the novel coronavirus stokes fears of a government plot to subvert freedoms.

Whether someone is a conspiracy theorist or not, the pandemic is forcing people to think critically about information and trying to decipher what is real and what is imagined. Blurring that capability is skewered media reporting on a wide-ranging scale. One of the first rules of journalistic ethics is to always remain unbiased and simply report the facts. That isn’t always being done. Opinions are now the norm.

What’s most alarming is the apparent lack of centrist mass media outlet in America – people who will not blindly vote one way or another along party lines, but instead vote with their brain and their conscience. The propaganda machine is churning like it never has before. To the far right is Fox News while the far left is occupied by the likes of CNN and MSNBC. Supporters of both sides will each adamantly scoff at such claims of bias and instead attempt to portray themselves as the rational centrists, and as such they would be the holders of the moral high ground.

On Fox News, Donald Trump can do no wrong. On CNN he can do no right. There is nothing in between but a gigantic chasm of emptiness. Recent polls indicate Americans are more cynical about the mainstream media than ever before in history – which means more people are seeking their information elsewhere and that can be disastrous. The main problem with educating oneself on the internet is being able to trudge through a jungle of opinions and try to decipher between what is valuable, factual information and what is fake news. Evolving from that is a multitude of varying opinions, mixing in a bit of fact and a bit of fiction to suit a particular narrative.

An example of how urban legend can germinate to become factual reality for some people was with respect to comments allegedly made by former U.S. Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. There are many people who are certain she uttered the words “I can see Russia from my house.” In fact, it was a line spoken by actress Tina Fey, who was portraying Palin in a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live. The skit was based on an interview Palin gave to a media outlet. However, the wording was purposely manipulated to garner more laughs on the late-night NBC TV show. Palin’s real comment was: “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” That is in fact a true statement. On a clear day, a person at Cape Prince of Wales is able to see mainland Siberia, about 70km away. With that in mind, people need to be mindful of what they are seeing, hearing and reading as it relates to COVID-19 information and whether or not the source is reputable, parody or otherwise fake.

Testing & Treatment

The positive news is that there has been a ramp-up in testing and a greater ability to provide treatment for the novel coronavirus over the past several weeks. In fact, the U.S. has now devised a test that yields results within five minutes.

A question everyone wants an answer to is: how long will this nightmare continue? But that would be akin to asking: how long is a piece of string? What is certain is that the piece of string automatically gets longer when more people refuse to self-isolate. All we can go on is to look at historical statistics pertaining to pandemics of the past such as SARS in 2003, avian (Bird) flu in 2006 and H1N1 in 2009, when the duration tended to last for about three months before being properly contained.

If we are all in this together, we need to start acting like it. It means keeping political biases out of it. Let’s make the best of it and get past this horrible medical and economic disaster post haste.

It’s a complete waste of time for 98% of us to comply and be cooped up at home on a nice sunny day (other than trips to the grocery store or a walk or bike ride along a quiet, secluded trail), when the other 2% are gathering, oftentimes in the immediate proximity of complete strangers in large numbers at public parks and beaches, obliviously ignorant to what’s going on in the world. When we are witnessing a higher localized density of people hanging out together at a local city park than places such as the Las Vegas strip, Times Square in New York or Yonge Street in Toronto, it’s a societal and systematic failure. Others have still been holding full-blown weddings and banquets with hundreds of guests in attendance.

Medical professionals and government officials have repeatedly stated that the more efficiently we invoke social distancing and self-isolation, the sooner this global pandemic will be behind us.

This must be an “all or nothing” scenario. “All” was selected by those with the power to do so but right now we’re only at a level of “mostly” committed. Unless everyone capitulates and follows proper protocol, this is just going to be a time-wasting revolving door of frustration.

We’ll leave you with several positive notes from the U.S. Surgeon General: almost all people who contract COVID-19 will fully recover; we must lean in to protect the most vulnerable – those with chronic conditions, especially seniors; and if we all pitch in and share the facts, we will flatten the curve and overcome.

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