Laura Shanner, a professor who teaches health care ethics and other areas of philosophy at Vancouver Island University, wants people to think rationally about the coronavirus and measures to contain its spread.
Shanner’s public lecture, Thinking Rationally About Scary Things: Coronavirus Response, which had been scheduled for March 25, ironically has been cancelled by social distancing measures enacted to control the virus’ spread. So Shanner is turning to other means to get her message out about thinking rationally while living through scary times.
Shanner, currently at VIU, has taught bioethics at the University of Alberta and served as an expert consultant for a number of committees that include policy development committees for Health Canada.
She doesn’t sugarcoat her predictions about how long the world will be dealing with COVID-19 and its consequences.
“This is going to be, at least, a year-long adventure,” Shanner said. “The key to this is herd immunity. The virus is looking for somebody to infect and right now everybody is fair game because nobody has seen this before and we don’t have antibodies. So, once we get to 70, 80, 90 per cent of the population having antibodies, the virus has a hard time finding somebody new to infect and dies out.”
The trick is to buy time – “flatten the curve” – until a vaccine and be developed, tested and mass produced.
“Until then the only way to have people develop an immunity is to encounter the disease, so the plan is – this is why it’s so important to flatten the curve – that if we all catch this and come down with illness at the same time we’ll get over the infection, but it’ll be such an overload to the health care system the results will be catastrophic. So the plan now is we need to take turns getting sick and 80 per cent of us are still going to encounter this, we just need to pace ourselves over a year or two rather than have it happen in just a few months.”
Canada’s population in 2020 is about 37.7 million, but according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the country has 57,000 hospital beds. Of those 3,170 are intensive care unit beds, some of which are in children’s hospitals. As for ventilators, a key piece of equipment needed to treat patients who may develop severe respiratory problems as a symptom of COVID-19, Canada has 4,982.
To pace out the infection rate, social distancing and financial disruption could be with us for some time to come, so Shanner suggests this is a time when people can step back, reassess what’s important in their lives, and spend time with family and others. Don’t panic, she said. The stock market will recover as it always has after crashes. There’s no reason to panic-buy or hoard products. Production and delivery of goods aren’t being being threatened. Turn away from sources of misinformation on social media, find reliable sources for information and listen to health care workers and agencies that have been preparing for this situation for a long time.
“They are working for our best interest and they know what they’re doing and I have complete confidence in our public health people,” she said. “So we need to follow their guidance and trust that they have done so many training exercises that they know how to mobilize and they’ve been doing it … SARS hit Toronto and after that Canada really got its act together for federal and provincial co-operation and information sharing. Canada is very well-situated right now, to cope, because we went through the wringer with SARS, we have a lot of good people in action.“
This is a time when people will need to pull together and support one another and find ways to cope and adjust to life’s current disruptions.
“Keep breathing. Take care of our health. Manage our stress. Eat your vegetables. Wash your hands and really build connections with each other that are sustaining and responsible and that will make this episode unfold better than it otherwise would,” Shanner said. “We can find a lot of strength in ourselves because we are called upon to be strong in ways that we were not called upon before.”
Shanner shares more advice for dealing with the COVID-19 disruptions on a new blog at https://wordpress.viu.ca/shanner/.