It’s been 100 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.
While March 11 somehow feels like a lifetime ago – a life where we could hug, go to the office, send the kids off to school and take public transit without a care in the world – it’s a reminder the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, hasn’t been with us for that long.
In three months that rocked the world, we’ve learned a lot – medically, politically, socially – and changed even more.
Epidemiological jargon like flattening the curve, R-naught and attack rates now rolls off our tongues as readily as sports talk. Public health officials have the public profile of Hollywood stars. Parenting has been reinvented. And we can all measure a two-metre distance with laser precision, no measuring tape required.
One hundred days ago, the world had already recorded (only) 125,000 cases of coronavirus infection, and 5,000 deaths.
Canada had a modest 117 cases and a single death, tellingly in a long-term care facility. But schools were still operating, mass gatherings such as hockey games were still taking place, and we could still eat in restaurants. The words “social distancing” (later “physical distancing”) were about to enter our vocabulary.
We know now that the countries that have weathered the pandemic best acted swiftly and decisively. They implemented massive testing programs and vise-like lockdowns.
Canada is a country of cautious incrementalism and, in responding to a pandemic virus, that has served us poorly. Measures such as physical distancing, border closings and mask-wearing were introduced slowly and reluctantly, one baby step at a time.
We’ve paid a heavy price for wishy-washiness.
Canada has the world’s 39th largest population, but it ranks 18th in cumulative coronavirus cases. Community spread has also lingered, because of muddled messaging and painfully slow contact tracing, using state-of-the-art technology like the fax machine.
Countries such as Italy and Spain, which had much more severe outbreaks, have reduced the number of daily case numbers and reopened their economies more swiftly than Ontario and Quebec.
More than anything though, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses that already existed.
In Canada, 27 per cent of all cases and 83 per cent of deaths have occurred in facilities such as long-term care homes – 27,612 resident and staff infections and 6,804 resident and staff deaths occurred in congregate settings, according to tracking by the National Institute on Ageing.
Clearly, the way we care for (or, more precisely, show contempt for) our elders has to be rethought fundamentally.
The obsessive secrecy of public institutions, including public health, has also proved problematic. To this day, Canadians have little idea where new COVID-19 infections are occurring.
Yet, this information is crucial, especially as lockdowns end.
Research from other countries tells us that the greatest risk of infection comes from close person-to-person interactions in crowded indoor settings with poor ventilation, not from contaminated surfaces or fleeting encounters. In other words, it’s not just physical distancing that matters, it’s the time we spend near an infected person, the activity being practised and the environment.
Outdoors is significantly safer than indoors, but as case numbers explode in the U.S. South, Brazil and India, clearly this virus is not cowed by hot weather.
Super-spreaders – people who shed virus much more readily – are drivers of the pandemic. About 20 per cent of people are responsible for 80 per cent of cases.
Treatment of COVID-19 cases has improved markedly in a short time, largely because scientists have learned that while the illness starts in the lungs, it can have a serious impact on the blood vessels, kidneys and brain too. Despite much hype for drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, and dexamethasone, there is no silver bullet. A vaccine is a long way off.
At 100 days, Canada has just passed a grim milestone – 100,000 cumulative cases. Worldwide, 8.5 million cases. The epicentre has shifted from Asia to Europe to the Americas.
The first wave is just picking up steam, and second wave could hit even harder in the fall.
Yet, we’ve moved from anxiety to complacency, without much reason to do so.
From the tsumani of COVID-19 data, a humbling message emerges. To paraphrase Albert Einstein: The more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know.
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