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Time and again we ask ourselves, Who would ever have imagined this was possible? 

By: Bill Zolis

Let’s imagine that it’s New Year’s Eve a little over a year and a half ago. We’re with friends and family. There are two or three or half a dozen conversations going on, bouncing from topic to topic and touching, sometimes lightly, sometimes seriously, on everything that’s happening in the world. 

One topic that we are not discussing is Covid-19. 

That’s because we had never heard of Covid-19. The first news reports of a scary new respiratory illness would not start popping up for another week or so and, even then, the stories would be about the curious case of a doctor in the far-off city of Wuhan, who had gotten into trouble with the local authorities for “spreading rumours” about the possibility of a small local outbreak of a disease, possibly similar to SARS. 

Now imagine that you, at that New Year’s Eve party, suddenly had a flash of clairvoyance and you announced that in just four months – by April 2020 – about 25% of Canadians will be at home, out of work and receiving government benefits, while a further 40% of Canadians will be working from home full-time. 

What happens next? Your life partner is quietly moving your drink out of reach. Your host is asking nervously for your car keys. Everyone else is looking embarrassed and quickly changing the subject. 

I look back at the remarkable events of the last 20 months, at where we find ourselves today, at all the work we have done to adjust and adapt, and I can’t help but be amazed at what we have learned in such a short time.  

Here, in no particular order, are eight things we’ve learned (or eight things we would never have believed back at the New Year’s party before the world turned upside down). 

  1. Work-from-home proved it could work. So well, in fact, that most of us would prefer to keep doing it, all or part of the time, and most employers are equally on board. Again, think back to that New Year’s Eve party. If you had suggested that, in a little over three months, everyone who could theoretically work from home would be doing so, no one would have believed you. They would have talked about how hard it is to change habits, how necessary personal contact is, how there are all kinds of problems that make it impossible, how it’s just not practical for most people, how it takes years and years for such major changes to happen. And yet, here we are.
  2. Telemedicine is out of the bottle and it’s not going back in. A ten-minute consultation on your phone or laptop, from anywhere, as opposed to taking half a day off, driving somewhere, finding parking, waiting half an hour in the waiting room full of sick people… well, the term “no brainer” comes to mind. Doctors’ office visits have fallen by 80% and 71% of all consultations are now It’s the biggest change in Canadian health care since… forever. Compare this to what happened a few years ago, when the Ontario government got in trouble for spending a billion dollars and ten years trying to bring in electronic medical records – and failed.
  3. Medical miracles are still possible – maybe more so than ever before. From the earliest days of the pandemic, pharma companies, universities and public health institutions went into Covid vaccine Some, like Astra-Zenica and its partners in the academic world, took the best-bet or conventional approach of producing an attenuated-virus vaccine (like basically all vaccines in the past). Others, like Pfizer and Moderna, took the unproven Hail-Mary route of targeting the Coronavirus genetic structure itself. Vaccine production is generally accepted to take eight, nine, ten years or more from start to finish. They pulled it off in roughly that many months.
  4. The most basic of conventional public health measures actually work. Masks, social distancing, canceling large gatherings, staying at home, hand washing, and disinfecting surfaces have had a significant effect. True, we can’t say how many people avoided Covid infection because of these measures – but we can point out that 2020-21 saw perhaps the lowest numbers of flu cases since records have been kept. And how many colds have you had in that time, compared to other years?
  5. The national economy and international trade did not collapse. Think back to the party again. Imagine asking, “If we closed borders, shut down air travel, closed stores and restaurants, and so on, what would the effect on the economy be?” It would be a brave and wildly optimistic person who didn’t tell you that economies would collapse and the world would be forced into another great And yet, and yet… 
  6. Canadians and, indeed, people around the world are willing and able to pull together to make huge changes to their lives without any serious upheaval when it is really required. Think about it. One day we were suddenly told that stores were closing, public gatherings canceled, schools shuttered, travel banned, masks required, a quarter of jobs put on hold, and 40% of people forced to work from home. No studies, no parliamentary commission, no federal-provincial conference, no legal challenges, no negotiations, no phase-in period – just boom, here it is, starting the day after tomorrow. And we basically all saw the logic and the reasoning, and we all went along as best we could. Wow.
  7. There are darker lessons, too, that I hope we have learned. The first is the need to identify and move quickly to protect vulnerable communities. If we had known then what we know now, we would have moved to lock down retirement homes on day one, and reduced overall fatalities by half or more. That older people should be most affected is not as obvious as it seems, though – in the great flu epidemic of 1919, it was the young and healthy who were hardest hit. But next time maybe we’ll know that targeted protection is a very big deal.
  8. The second dark lesson is that we have to do a better job of identifying emerging threats, and that we have to take the international politics out of the equation. Yes, easier said than done. From what I’ve read on the subject, I know that there were systems in place to spot a disease with pandemic potential, and that, because of the link to SARS, there was an early appreciation of how bad it could be. But we lost two or three or more months at the start, time that could have made a very big difference.

But it is the sheer, unimaginable unlikeliness of the whole story that is perhaps our biggest lesson learned so far. That very, very unlikely things can happen, for better or worse. And that the next one may be just around the corner.  

And that somehow we will always cope if we all pull together. 

 

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I really appreciate comments, ideas, suggestions or just observations about the blog or any other topics in benefits management. I always look forward to hearing from readers. If there’s anything you want to share, please email me at bill@penmore.com 

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