Kevin Newman: Right now, burnout is as big a threat as the virus

We need to bring in fresh eyes and new perspectives to help us plan the next phase

By: Kevin Newman

Remember “We’ll get through this together”? It has been the mantra of leadership for more than a year now. I’m starting to doubt it. Not the “together” part. The “get through this” part. 

In my own small (and shrinking) circle I heard so many stories lately of resilience crumbling as the reality of the third wave settled in. Friends hadn’t anticipated this long a financial drain, so they’re applying again for government assistance and holding their breath that this will be the last time. A colleague shared that he recently spent a whole day trying to console distressed and crying employees. My own resilience cracked with the realization I am wholly unprepared for COVID-19 to remain part of my life once I’m fully vaccinated.

The discipline to remain hopeful isn’t helped by tracking the current data. Canada has multiple variants that are surging. Hospitals in Ontario are struggling, Nova Scotia has an outbreak, Alberta is locking down. CBC reported we are unique in the world for how fast and how many variants are emerging simultaneously. Swell.  

Vaccines, our path out of this mess, have been slow to arrive and sometimes even slower to roll out once delivered. B.C. spent a year designing an online booking portal. Ontario, where I live, has had booking problems, and the government has repeatedly changed it policies. Getting a shot here has been compared to competing in the Hunger Games. And now the epidemic modellers seem to be predicting that the long-promised moment of relief with “herd immunity” may never be achieved because the variants are emerging quicker than our ability to vaccinate, and in some cases, our willingness to take the jab.

So yes. Fewer people should be dying from COVID as vaccinations take hold, but we will have many, many months of struggle ahead of us. The summer, and year, feels to be slipping away.

But here’s the thing.

People aren’t the only ones burning out and fed up. Our current pandemic leaders are too.

When the crisis was fresh more than a year ago, so were the politicians and bureaucrats and political staff handling it. They quickly and impressively launched vast new government programs to provide emergency financial support and prevent social unrest. When they discovered we had almost no PPE in storage, they rallied to find it. When programs for small businesses missed the target, they quickly identified mistakes and fixed them. And when it was clear we had to buy all our vaccines from other countries, they spent the money to find supplies. Big Government worked! We’ll get through this, together!

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But here’s what happens when governments (at all levels), public-health officials, and everyone else trying to manage an endless crisis get run down. They grow numb. They act from reflex and fear and lose the ability to imagine new solutions. They stop asking for better data to inform their decisions and instead rely on what they already think they know. Frustration and tension rises. They centralize all decision-making around too few people because its easier to organize, but they stop hearing new (and maybe better) ideas from the fringes. Eventually some of the tools developed early in the crisis stop working either because the crisis has morphed and they can’t see it, or they were tools built from a premise that ended up being wrong in the real world, or those supposed to use the tools stop believing in them.

When you keep reaching for the same tools of mitigation, which better evidence suggests may not work as you think, it’s a pretty strong indicator that you’ve stopped learning and are just acting on instinct. Burned out. Ontario shut down restaurants and gyms, where risk of transmission is low, but needed weeks of prodding to prioritize vaccination in hot spot areas and for essential workers, where transmission rates are very high.

So what are we to do? Well, there’s an opportunity right now for a significant reset. While we struggle through the overly-complicated plans to fully vaccinate every Canadian by the end of summer, we could create a new multi-discipline agency solely focussed on better policies to handle a protracted fight with COVID and its variants for the foreseeable future. A federal-provincial task force? A wartime all-party cabinet committee? Oh hell, just call the “Justice League,” because we desperately need fresh ideas and wider perspective to examine the COVID crisis as it is now. Our existing leadership and medical community will be collapsing in exhaustion at the vaccination finish line, so let’s not make the same mistake we made last summer and convince ourselves to take a break. We need a new plan created by fresh eyes.

This new effort should start by taking a look at what a year of real-life data has taught us. Not only the theoretical modelling to help guide us through the unknown, but hard proven facts. Then, if it means admitting what we did before we knew better was wrong, we have to build better policy around what we’ve learned.

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We need to debate new thresholds for shutting down economic activity with a virus that is more widespread but hopefully less deadly by September. We’ve relied on case count numbers and ICU capacity as the metrics for shutdowns. Is it time to balance those considerations with others? Public-health officials have been the lead experts in the crisis so far, is it time to take emergency planners off the bench and insert their broader knowledge into building back resiliency for an extended pandemic, whether due to new COVID variants or something entirely new that emerges at some future date?

How about engaging family medicine more and listening to all those doctors and nurses who have been left to advocate from the sidelines in frustration? Are enough experts in mental health at the table? Are financial incentives needed to convince people to cope with some fear of returning to a more-normal life? (Australia’s government, for example, gives everyone a voucher for a free restaurant meal and half-off internal travel to bolster confidence in their recovering economy.) We need to talk about how much sickness we are prepared to accept as a new normal of doing business.

If we start asking those questions now instead of always reacting to the latest crises (often too late!) and create a structure to replace our exhausted frontline leadership, maybe we’ll have much better answers when we need them in September.

The virus is proving it is far from exhausted or finished with us. It is adapting and exploiting our weaknesses, and primary among them is our burnout.

If we don’t find a way to hand this off, my fear of a relentless pandemic could be all too real. 

Kevin Newman is a retired television anchor and journalist who covered prime ministers and their governments from Trudeau 1 to Trudeau 2.


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