Do you remember Dr. Niles Crane from the 1990s television sitcom Frasier? Niles was the fussy, cultured, snobbish younger brother of call-in radio host and psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane (played by Kelsey Grammer). Fearful of germs and obsessed with cleanliness, Niles was always wiping his hands immediately after any human contact, as well as wiping down chairs in public places before sitting on them. In one episode, Niles preaches on the dangers of germs to a group of fourth graders, who think he is wonderful for knowing such "cool" facts.
The fictional Niles Crane suffered from mysophobia, also known as germophobia or germaphobia: an irrational fear of germs and bacteria, and the infections and illnesses they might bring. Germaphobes wash their hands excessively, are fearful of hugs and hand-shaking, avoid crowded places, worry about becoming ill, and are forever cleaning and sanitizing their surroundings. Germaphobia falls under the category of specific phobias in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
The fictional Niles Crane would be very impressed with how people are behaving in 2020: avoiding hugs and handshakes; fearfully maintaining a six-foot distance; avoiding crowds; living in terror of getting sick; and repeatedly sanitizing everything in sight. In Canada in 2020, we have all turned into Niles Crane.
Niles Crane's germaphobia was funny because it featured the delicious irony of a brilliant and arrogant psychiatrist who successfully provided individual and family therapy to his patients yet suffered from an obvious and untreated mental illness himself. But the reality of mental illness is anything but funny. An excessive and irrational fear of contamination and infection can have a devastating impact on the ability of germaphobes to function at home, work, school and socially.
Diagnosing a phobia requires distinguishing healthy fear from irrational fear. Fear of a typical Canadian basement spider is irrational, whereas Brazilians have good reason to be very afraid of the wandering spider, whose venom actually kills people. Driving carefully, in order to reduce the risk of injury or death, is acting on a healthy fear. Refusing to travel in any vehicle at all, ever, based on fear of dying, and thereby suffering socially and financially, is irrational.
Canada's now-permanent lockdown measures are requiring all of us to think and behave much like Niles Crane did in the Frasier series. Therefore, Canadians need to ask themselves the same question that an individual patient should ask: am I dealing with a healthy fear or an irrational fear?
Six months ago, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College warned that COVID-19 would kill 510,000 people in the United Kingdom and 2.2 million Americans. Ferguson has a record of making outlandish worst-case predictions about new viruses. He predicted a Bird Flu death toll of up to 200 million people; fewer than 500 died. He predicted as many as 50,000 would die from BSE (Mad Cow Disease); actual death toll close to 200. The swine flu would cause 65,000 British deaths, claimed Ferguson, but fewer than 500 died. Ferguson’s fear-inspiring predictions on COVID-19, made in March of 2020, are just as wrong.
The World Health Organization informs us that "an influenza pandemic is a rare but recurrent event." The 1918-20 Spanish flu killed an estimated 20–50 million people worldwide, when world population was just under two billion. The 1957 "Asian flu" killed two million, when world population was 2.9 billion. The 1968 "Hong Kong flu" killed one million, when world population was 3.6 billion. COVID-19 may or may not end up claiming as many lives as the Hong Kong flu, but the world population is now 7.8 billion. Over 55 million people die each year.
In other words, the Spanish flu killed between 0.01 and 0.025 of the global population; the 1957 pandemic killed 0.0007; the 1968 pandemic killed 0.0003; COVID-19 has killed 0.0001, which is 1 percent of 1 percent. When viewed properly in historical context, the COVID-19 death toll is much closer to that of an annual flu than to any pandemic in the past century.
Further, we know that COVID-19 deaths are over-reported, based on what public health officials in many jurisdictions have publicly stated: anyone who dies with the virus in their body is deemed to have died of the virus. Simply put: COVID-19 is not an unusually deadly killer.
Another fear-inspiring claim is that "COVID-19 threatens everyone." But data published by governments around the world shows that COVID-19 threatens elderly people who are already very sick. COVID-19 poses virtually no threat to children, youth, or healthy adults under 60.
The fear of COVID-19, which now perpetuates lockdown measures in Canada and globally, is an irrational fear. The facts—readily available to anyone who makes the effort to look at government data on COVID-19 deaths—do not justify the continued violation of our Charter freedoms to move, travel, associate, assemble and worship.
Unless and until Canadians free themselves from this irrational fear, we will continue to suffer massive harms in the form of unemployment, poverty, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, family violence, despair, suicide, and the permanent loss of our Charter rights and freedoms.
What will it take to cure society of its collective germaphobia?
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
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