The lockdown should be for the old and vulnerable, no one else

Such an approach would inflect relatively little harm to the economy or to the financial security so important to our sense of well-being.

In this file photo taken on March 8, 2020, an elderly woman wearing a protective face mask sits on a bench in the city centre of Milan, after millions of people were placed under forced quarantine in northern Italy. Credit: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images files.

By Lawrence Solomon, published by the Financial Post on March 26, 2020

Read the original version of this opinion piece at the publisher’s website here

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory are right to panic over a coronavirus explosion. Next to Mexico, our hospitals are the poorest equipped of all OECD countries. As put by Frances Woolley, professor of economics at Carleton University, “a cold hard look at the numbers suggests our hospitals cannot cope with the most flattened of curves. Indeed, they cannot cope with any kind of curve at all.”

That chilling assessment means our leaders are wrong to try to lock down much or all of the economy to “flatten the curve” — jargon for preventing a spike in hospitalizations. Italy failed at this despite having one-third more acute-care hospital beds per capita than Canada and twice as many per capita as Ontario, ground zero for Canada’s looming crisis.

Half of Ontario’s hospitals are already at overcapacity for much of the year. The U.S., in contrast, is in trouble despite a hospital sector that is only at 64 per cent capacity. South Korea did do well in flattening the curve but it has more than four times as many hospital beds per capita as does Canada. Germany, which is attempting a lockdown, has more than three times as many.

Because our government-controlled hospitals aren’t up to the job and private hospitals don’t exist, Canadians and Ontarians in particular have little choice but to rely on self-discipline and individual responsibility. Luckily, the data indicate that such a can-do approach could well succeed — and with relatively little harm to the economy or to the financial security so important to our sense of well-being.

According to a March 17 survey from Italy’s national health authority, more than 99 per cent of its coronavirus fatalities suffered from previous medical conditions. It found just three individuals who weren’t already ill, representing 0.8 per cent of deaths among the 18 per cent of fatalities it investigated.

Italy’s findings are consistent with those elsewhere. The great majority of the population that becomes infected — well over 90 per cent — survives, typically with symptoms resembling the common cold. Often those infected don’t even realize they had contracted the coronavirus. The survivors then become immune, no longer at risk to either themselves or to others, creating what the medical world calls “herd immunity” — an immunized, infection-free population unable to infect the unimmunized. A simple test can confirm the immunity.

A can-do approach to dealing with coronavirus in Canada — a no-brainer, really — is to clearly discriminate between those who should avoid infection and those who should invite it.

Those with existing illnesses who should avoid infection — chiefly those of all ages with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or active cancer — should isolate themselves for several months, knowing that they otherwise risk death. Those especially at risk are those who have three or more existing illnesses (almost half of all who died in Italy were so severely compromised) and those with two existing illnesses (another 25 per cent of all deaths). The average age of death in Italy was 80, with very few deaths under age 50 and vanishingly few under age 40, all of whom were males with serious existing illnesses.

Those who care about this at-risk population — friends and family members — should likewise exercise extreme caution, interacting with at-risks only at a distance and taking all measures needed to keep them safe. Given the alternative of death, all involved have every incentive to be self-disciplined and scrupulously conscientious.

This lock-down of the at-risk population not only saves the lives of the at-risk, it spares the hospitals from an inundation they cannot cope with, allowing them to avoid the triage that would otherwise become necessary. It also allows the healthies of all ages — those without existing illness — to work and play, frequenting bars and restaurants and attending schools and sporting events. Because these healthies won’t need to be vigilant in most of their daily activities, it will be easier for them to exercise discipline on necessary occasions. Most healthies will inevitably become infected — that is the predicted fate of 70 to 80 per cent or more of the entire population — but more safely so. The relatively few who will need hospital care will be able to get it, because those at risk are safely quarantined, freeing up the scant hospital capacity for the rest of the population.

With every infection comes a growth in the immunized portion of the “herd,” a lessening of panic and a virtuous cycle in which an ever-increasing liberated population will be able to interact more freely with loved ones at risk. Month by month, the general public will grow increasingly immune, until the herd is sufficiently safe to allow those in the at-risk population to leave their quarantine on foot, rather than on a stretcher, and to enjoy with everyone else the restaurants, cultural events and other pursuits that a healthy, well-functioning society offers.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Consumer Policy Institute.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .

13 thoughts on “The lockdown should be for the old and vulnerable, no one else

  1. This is interesting and I’ve considered the same argument for now and perhaps future pandemics. However, I’d like to hear what the WHO and other health experts say about this before this strategy is adopted.

  2. What a dangerous point of view perpetuated on the public?! How many people , young and old , have compromised immune systems (IBS, Crohn, Addison Disease , and on and on ) who are at risk? I’m sure my employer will be understanding – if I just stay home – and I guess best to start the divorce proceedings. What irresponsible reporting by small minded people who live in glass towers.

  3. You are extremely irresponsible to be publishing such nonsense, that has no basis in fact. Where is the proof that people can’t be reinfected? My understanding was this “herd immunity” theory was debunked in this case.

    There are many factual errors in your column. Many young people have died and will die. China was successful in beating this by maintaining a strict quarantine, in contrast to Italy and Spain who took your approach until too late.

    Is this some kind of publicity stunt? If so, you are some kind of sociopath.

    I am also surprised that the National Post would publish such nonsense.

  4. If it was not for the lockdown there would have been many other people who would be infected of all ages. Since we don’t know the after affects of being infected yet for example they let chicken pox run wild for immunizing the herd but it stays in your body and come back many years later. Corona virus could do exactly the same only safe way to create herd immunity is vaccine. In addition because the virus attacks the lungs getting out even a mild form could permanently harm the infected persons lungs. More research is needed. Your being a covidiot.

  5. You are a complete idiot. In Alberta the majority of COVID cases that are hospitalized are men and women between the ages of 30 to 50. That blows your theory out of the water. If only the older people and people that have health issues are in isolation we will have an explosion of people sick in the above mentioned age group which will overwhelm our health systems and then more people will die. Do your research based on facts and not Trumps wishful thinking. It’s a shame that this article would even be published. It’s deplorable.

  6. Give your head a shake, so infect everything around us? Quarantine the vulnerable, and who is going to take care of them? Certainly not the”at lower risk” part of the population, they will only infect them eventually. This due to the fact that a narrow minded policy of just letting the healthy carry on as normal and take their chances. Would be a policy that only the ones worried about their investments would approve. Humanity, weak or strong are the priority, Family, our sisters, mothers, brothers and fathers deserve to be top priority. The big machine can always be fixed, it can’t bring back our family members. We are all in this together, take care of each other. That is what being a human is. Not to segregate the weak from the strong. The one thing the world needs now is to work together to help each other not articles to invite seperation and the survival of the fittest…Give your head a shake!

  7. Canadian human beings are NOT a herd sir. Young people get COVID too. And if you want to write stories for a country of the dead, you may get your wish. You are irresponsible, and part of a growing death cult that looks at death with as much empathy as a spider feels toward a fly. If you want to screw the economy for GENERATIONS then, sure, get everybody sick. God! These attitudes are sickening as are you. Tell you what, go visit people with COVID and see the impact. Or get it yourself and THEN tell us how manageable it all is.

  8. you can offer the frail who self isolate an incentive in the form of some money

    completely agree with your piece

    by the way where can we find data on the covid deaths in Canada ie age, physical condition etc

  9. This is a dangerous and misleading narrative. As we are seeing now, young and healthy people are not immune and are dying as well. Those who have a chance of recovering are not being given that chance as ventilators in hospitals run out (see New York). Those who don’t show symptoms act as carriers and pass it on to the more vulnerable populations that could potentially perish. One look at the situation in New York shows how dire this can get without social distancing. This herd immunization you speak of is only possible at the expense of many lives in the process. Not to mention, if that were really a reliable measure there would not be the great need for vaccines for diseases that we have ‘eradicated’ (see the measles outbreak in the US). Nobody likes being told to stay home, but please consider the bigger picture rather than irresponsibly trying to rationalize why you shouldn’t have to follow the steps that will save lives. Whether or not you believe you are in condition to fight off the virus, by not participating in social distancing you are proving to have no regard for the lives of those who are vulnerable. Be on the right side of history.

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