The Dangerous Morbidity Of COVID Denialism

Those who scorn the lethality of Covid-19 are risking the lives of others.

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Morbidity, n. — A diseased state or symptom; ill health.

Merriam Webster’s dictionary

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Mark Twain

nder a vast blue mid-November sky, Peter climbed the grain bin to check on its contents — a task he’d completed countless times in thirty-five years of farming Alberta’s prairies.

Halfway to the top his foot slipped on one of the metal rungs. As he struggled to regain his balance, he lost his grip on the ladder and plummeted, landing head-first on the concrete pad below.

Rushed to hospital, he succumbed within hours to catastrophic brain injuries. Dead, at the age of 67 — leaving his wife, four grown children and five young grandchildren to grieve his passing.

Tragic, you might say.

But it wasn’t a big deal, really. Because Peter had comorbidities, you see. He suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes, and he’d battled prostate cancer for five years. He died with his head injury — not because of his head injury.

That’s ridiculous, I hear you saying — not to mention offensive, ignorant, and moronic.

I agree with you one hundred percent. But it’s precisely the sort of twisted logic offered up by those who seek to dismiss the tragedy of those who have died from Covid-19, and thereby to dismiss the significance of the Covid pandemic itself.

Consider this Twitter gem, offered up to ringing social media applause on December 4 by one Paul Mitchell (formerly People’s Party of Canada candidate for the riding of Red Deer Mountain View):

“Please feel free to share these facts on Covid-19 deaths: In Alberta a total of 11 otherwise healthy people (with no comorbidities) have died of Covid-19.”

Which, he went on to note, amounts to just two percent of all Albertans who have died from the disease.

As for the other 98 per cent, the implication is clear: their lives don’t have much value — the poor suckers were on their way out anyway.

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Logic isn’t Mitchell’s strong suit, clearly; nor is empathy. But his distorted perspective feeds directly into a narrative peddled by others like him — that the vast majority of those who have died while infected with the pandemic virus have died with Covid-19, not because of Covid-19.

It’s a narrative that hits pretty close to home. I work on the medical front lines as an emergency physician at Alberta Children’s Hospital. One morning earlier this week a mother brought her 9-year-old daughter to my hospital, concerned because she had vomited throughout the night. The child collapsed at triage, began convulsing, and turned blue. My team and I worked for an hour in the code room to resuscitate and stabilize the little girl before transferring her to the intensive care unit.

By evening her Covid test was back: positive.

I and my colleagues wear full protective gear during encounters like this — gloves, gown, N95 mask, goggles; but up-front and personal encounters with Covid-positive patients remain high-risk events for transmission, no matter how careful one is.

I may have contracted Covid-19 from that girl, despite my precautions — but even if I skate scot-free from her infectious penumbra, I could get infected by another of my patients.

I could get sick.

I could even die from the virus. Which would be tragic, some might say.

But it wouldn’t be a big deal, by the impeccable logic of Mitchell & Co. — because like the unfortunate farmer, I have a comorbidity. For fourteen years I’ve lived with cancer. For fourteen years I’ve fended it off thanks to the marvels of modern medicine.

The drug I take every day to keep that malignancy at bay, however, would increase my vulnerability to the worst impacts of Covid were I to become infected.

Yet if the worst happened — if the virus consigned me to the oxygen-starved side of the soil — the tragedy of my passing would be lessened for my family by the fact that I had an underlying condition. So runs the “thinking” of Covid deniers, at least. By their lights, I would have died with Covid, not from Covid.

(It’s been four days since my encounter with that sick girl, and I have no symptoms, thankfully. Fingers crossed.)

I shouldn’t really need to point out that most patients with comorbidities who have been killed by Covid would have lived happily for years if they hadn’t contracted Covid. But that indisputable fact doesn’t enter into the deniers’ half-assed calculus.

Mitchell and his ilk are apparently unaware that approximately 45 per cent of people live with one or more comorbidities — medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, emphysema, thyroid conditions, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, asthma, and so on and on. They prattle on about “targeted protection of the vulnerable” and allowing “the healthy” to function unimpeded by restrictions and mask-wearing mandates. I wonder: do they really propose to lock away half of society (and likely two-thirds of everyone over 40) for months and months until we achieve immunization nirvana?

The messed-up logic of Covid deniers is swallowed unquestioningly by many among us, sadly — even by those who are usually level-headed. For instance, an acquaintance — a former federal Conservative MP — promptly posted Mitchell’s tweet to her Facebook feed, attended by the following comment:

“Should we take reasonable precautions? Yes. Is the sky falling? No.”

I suggested to my ex-MP friend that she tour one of our local ICUs, where physicians are working frantically to stay abreast of an overwhelming crush of desperately-ill Covid patients struggling to breathe. My over-burdened medical colleagues wouldn’t know what colour the sky is, let alone whether it is falling — they’re too busy trying to save lives.

Most hospitalized Covid patients will survive, thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of health-care professionals. But as patient numbers swell alarmingly, we’re running short of spaces to treat them; worse, we’re running short of expert physicians.

A number of my pediatric emergency colleagues have been re-deployed to adult intensive care units to fill the gaps. They deserve kudos for their dedication and bravery — but doctors practicing out-of-scope is far from ideal for patients. (Imagine a short-staffed construction foreman sending a framer to do the work of his finishing carpenter — the end result might leave a bit to be desired. And doctors are dealing with lives, not buildings.)

It needn’t have come to this. There’s a decent chance that if Covid deniers had done the simple things — if they had danced the Covid three-step of indoor mask-wearing, sensible social distancing, and careful hand-washing — we wouldn’t be here today. The sky would not, in fact, be falling.

But they didn’t do those things. Instead, they marched — and continue to march — in anti-mask rallies as they prattle on incessantly about their “rights”.

They’d be well served to heed this popular truism:

“Insisting on your rights without acknowledging your responsibilities isn’t freedom. It’s adolescence.”

That’s funny, in a dark kind of way.

But the arrested adolescence of Covid deniers is costing thousands of our loved ones their health and their lives, even as we stand on the cusp of vaccine salvation.

And that’s not funny at all — it’s unutterably tragic.

Pediatric Emergency Physician

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