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Op/Ed: Some of us had a front row bed

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on health care in BC.

The warning signs were there, but by February 27, those signs were a little too frequent and it became apparent that it was time to suck it up and head to a hospital, never my favourite destination.

The first three or four days remain a bit of a blur, but I was discharged a week ago on Friday the 13th. I may need to revisit some of my superstitions.

The hospital needed beds, as did hospitals in other COVID-19 – or coronavirus – hotspots across B.C. and here's where the story takes an interesting turn.

Once that four days of blur had cleared, instead of watching the daily briefings of B.C. Health minister Adrian Dix and B.C. Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry for the latest updates, I relied on my front row bed to learn what British Columbians might expect in coming briefings.

Biggest lesson?

Cutting to the bone – even decades earlier – can come back to haunt when patients are gasping for their next breath.

As I wrote on these pages in 2014, in regards to the Mount Polley disaster: “In its obsession to balance the budget at all costs, the government of former premier Gordon Campbell may have overlooked the fact that cutting corners doesn’t always payoff in the long run. Sometimes you need to spend money in order to save it.”

Despite early warning signs from the 2000 Walkerton tragedy in Ontario that cutbacks in that province might not have worked out so well, Campbell continued on his merry cost-cutting ways.

In 2002, Justice Dennis O’Connor – who had been appointed by the Ontario government to conduct the Walkerton Inquiry – concluded that “government cutbacks had made the environment ministry less capable of identifying and dealing with environmental problems,” laying waste to that old cliché that ‘a penny saved is a penny earned.’ Sometimes it's a penny wasted.

Where does this leave B.C. in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Top of the list? Elective surgeries across the province have been cancelled, in the hopes of making “hundreds of beds” available, in the words of Dix, for possible COVID-19 patients.

Which brings us to some interesting numbers released each year by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). The institute releases a variety of inter-provincial – and inter-country – health indicators, including hospital beds.

Looking only at provinces with a population of more than one million, in 2018, Ontario had a rate of 1.7 hospital beds per 1,000 population or roughly 23,970 beds, Alberta's rate was 2.0, Saskatchewan (2.5) and Manitoba (2.7). Quebec's data was not available to CIHI.

B.C. has nothing to boast about, pulling in front of Ontario by only 0.1 with a rate of 1.8 per 100,000 population or 8,820 beds. Nationally, the rate for Canada is 2.0, which would work out to nearly an additional 1,000 beds for B.C. if our rate was the same.

CIHI also compares results for Canada’s provinces with those for member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

If B.C. has nothing to boast about domestically, it has even less to boast about internationally. Consider these rates: Sweden (2), United Kingdom (2.1), United States (2.4), New Zealand (2.6), Netherlands (2.9), France (3.1) and Germany (6).

Despite Dix's goodwill and a yeoman effort by local hospitals, B.C. remains one disaster away from seeing some of his “hundreds of beds” disappear in an instant. His beds aren't confined to one or two facilities, but are spread across the province.

Hospitals bring together a variety of patients with a variety of illnesses. You can't turn the infirm and injured away at the door.

Strokes aren't reserved for one day a week, births another, and the victims of drive-by shootings or car accidents the next.

A comment from one elderly patient in my room – showing early signs of dementia – will stick with me: “They don't want me.” He was referring to his for-profit senior's residence.

If they don't want him, who does? Maybe Campbell cut once too many times?

For the what's all the fuss about crowd: between 2002 and 2004, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) took 774 lives in 29 countries.

At the time of writing, COVID-19 has claimed 4,994 lives in the 27 member countries of the European Union, in less than three months.

There have been eights deaths in B.C. from COVID-19 to date. As best as I can tell, there was one from SARS.

While its fatality rate is far lower than the rate for SARS (4.1 per cent compared to 9.6 per cent), the number of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 is now 11,179 from more than 70 countries.

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.