OPINION | Alberta's new COVID-19 message: They died because of their risk factors

·3 min read

This column is an opinion from Rebecca Haines-Saah, a health sociologist at the University of Calgary.


Last week, I became someone I might study.

My job is to research how health-related stigma affects people and communities. Yet, as I listened to my supportive, non-judgmental doctor confirm their diagnosis that I have high blood pressure, I felt deep shame and self-blame.

I've been working too much. I don't manage my stressors. I fuss over my family. I should have been more active, cut out all alcohol and the late-night snacks. I should have said no to committees, working groups and new projects. I need to quit Twitter. I should really lose 10 pounds.

I've written extensively about how health is not just shaped by individual actions and access to health care. It's promoted by communities that provide belonging, fairness, supports and safety for all their members.

I know very well the evidence showing that health is socially and structurally determined, shaped by the society in which we work and live. Yet, in that moment in my doctor's office, I forgot everything I've learned about public health and attributed everything about the diagnosis to my behaviour. My failures.

That's why the move this week to list the presence or absence of comorbidities for each COVID-19 death in Alberta was a punch to the gut for a newly diagnosed person like me, and for the many who've been living with pre-existing conditions throughout the pandemic.

An incorrect message

Intended or not, there's a loud and clear (and incorrect) message: Those who died from COVID-19 died because of their own risk factors; the "otherwise healthy" person is safe.

The attention to comorbidities shifts focus from the fact that every death from COVID-19, including those among older people and those with chronic illnesses, is wholly preventable.

Left ineffectively checked, Alberta's exponential growth in cases threatens everyone. Dangerously, people who are "otherwise healthy" (and those who assume they are) may be emboldened to ignore public health restrictions or take them less seriously, assuming death from COVID-19 is near impossible and that recovery from the virus would be without complications.

It's easy to blame people for their "unhealthy lifestyles," but 800,000 Albertans — about one in five — have a chronic condition. We are not exactly a small minority.

That the incidence of diagnoses like asthma, diabetes and heart disease are higher in Alberta than the national rates suggests there's something about living here, something Albertan, if you will, that is contributing to our ill health. After all, health is shaped by where we live.

By including comorbidities with Alberta's reports on recent deaths from COVID-19, the province is weaponizing the idea of "protecting the most vulnerable among us," perversely assuring everyone else they're not at risk.

This contributes to chronic disease stigma by inferring that the dead, to borrow a term from the premier, bear "personal responsibility" for their deaths. It also neglects how the government's inadequate policy response has failed to protect all people and communities. But maybe that's the whole point.

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