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The Pattern Holds (Covid-19 News Issue 7)


On Saturday, April 4, the Ontario Ministry of Health’s integrated Public Health Information System (iPHIS) was updated from 2,794 confirmed COVID19 cases with 52 fatalities (recorded April 3) to 3,631 confirmed cases with 94 fatalities.  The age distribution pattern reported in our COVID-19 News yesterday has not changed.  Even with this significant increase in reporting data, still no one under the age of 40 in Ontario has died of COVID19.  82.9 percent of fatalities are still among persons over 70 years of age, and still over half of total fatalities are among persons 80 years of age or older.  There are still many unresolved cases, and the numbers might change, but there has been time for a pattern to emerge, and so far, this pattern indicates that COVID19 in Ontario is overwhelmingly, almost exclusively, a serious threat to the elderly and the infirm and not the young.  The young, so far, are vectors of the disease and not its victims; they may fall seriously ill, but in almost all cases (so far) they will recover, and many of the young people who contract COVID19 will not even fall ill, or if they do, only mildly.  In Ontario, at least, if not in Canada, COVID19 is an affliction of the old and the infirm.  Again, this may change, but so far, this is what we see.

The distinguished historian Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2019), a book recommended by the World Health Organization for understanding the current crisis, spoke today on Michael Enright’s CBC Sunday Morning.  He observed that epidemics and pandemics reflect the societies in which they occur.  The earlier scourges of typhus and cholera were diseases of urban concentration and insufficient sanitation and reflected the early conditions of mass population increase and industrialization of the transitional 18th and 19th centuries.  Our current pandemic, Snowden noted, is a disease of globalization resulting from massively increased human movement facilitated by transportation technologies and a simultaneous breakdown of human/animal barriers due to the erosion of animal habitat.  He might have added, but did not, that the disproportionate impact of this current pandemic on the elderly reflects a society that has significantly extended lifespan without always securing foundational health as well.  Never have so many old and unwell people lived so long as is the case now in what we call the developed world.  Not only that, but many of these vulnerable older people are concentrated now in nursing homes, condominiums, cruise ships, and vacation venues.  Many people in Canada their 70s, 80s and 90s who contract this illness will die of it; very few in their 20s and 30s will even notice it if they do, and if they do, they will not die of it.  At least so far!

This pattern may be very different in other parts of the world, and it might change here, but for now, COVID19 is a plague of our time, an illness rampant in a society containing concentrated populations of the elderly and unwell.  This was almost exactly the opposite in the Spanish Influenza which disproportionately killed the young, many of them soldiers weakened by malnutrition and the rigors of war.  The old were not the favored target of that flu virus, but ‘old’ is a relative term since the average life expectancy back then was something like 45 years.  Nothing like our current number of older people of advanced age has ever existed before in the history of the human species, and COVID19 is a massive killer in Ontario because of it.  Otherwise, in Ontario, at least, it would probably just be another vicious flu, coming and going with the seasons.  Viruses want to thrive and spread, and they will not do that if they kill their host.  It is an adaptive advantage for a virus to be less than lethal.  COVID19 is exploiting a weakness in our society, but it may be destroying itself in the process.



Issue 7, Sunday, April 5, 2020