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It’s time to shut it down.

Canada needs to embrace social distancing.

That means closing down schools (from daycares through to universities) temporarily, restricting access to hospitals and nursing homes, pulling the plug on mass gatherings such as sporting events, curtailing all non-essential travel and urging companies to have their employees work at home.

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This may seem extreme for a country that has only about 100 confirmed cases to date, but we can no longer stop this pandemic illness, just slow it down.

Public health officials in Canada have embraced a calm, measured response to coronavirus. That has served us well and must continue.

Social distancing means limiting our public interactions. It doesn’t mean mass quarantine, shutting down our borders and other draconian measures.

Canada is a democracy. We must respect individual rights, but also remind citizens of their collective responsibilities.

There is a broad range of opinions on coronavirus from “this is no big deal” to “this is the end of the world as we know it.”

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But this is a pandemic and we must err on the side of caution.

As an open society, we must take our coronavirus response lessons from South Korea, not China – both countries that have reined in their outbreaks using markedly different approaches.

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South Korea, hit early and hard by coronavirus, has responded by embracing voluntary social distancing, testing massively, making public health communication a priority, cleaning public spaces like there is no tomorrow and investing in a broad range of measures to blunt the economic impacts of the outbreak.

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

That is exactly what Canada needs to do – move from a wait-and-see approach to a roll-up-our-sleeves and act approach.

In recent days, a singularly important change has happened: New cases in Canada are no longer exclusively in people who travelled to high-risk countries such as China and Iran.

Coronavirus is now spreading in the community, at conferences, in nursing homes and likely many other places we will learn about in the coming days.

People are now being infected with COVID-19 and we don’t know the source of infection. That means it is present in the community in significant numbers.

We have to pro-actively seek out cases with greatly expanded testing, up to and including at-home and drive-thru testing (a South Korean innovation), to keep people from going to the emergency room.

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We also need thoughtful policies to support Canadians harmed by social distancing, from streamlined employment insurance to support for parents, including emergency daycare for people working in essential services. The $1-billion package from the federal government announced Wednesday is just a start.

The way the virus has been galloping around the world, we knew the tipping point was coming. It was not a question of whether the strategy was going to change, but when.

The time is now. The time has arrived to shift from trying to contain spread to mitigating the harm from inevitable spread.

There is a saying in infectious disease circles that once you know where a virus is, it has already moved on. With coronavirus in the community – in B.C., Ontario and in alarming numbers in that big country just to the south of us – we can’t stop the spread anymore. But we can slow it.

You will hear the term “flattening the curve” a lot in the coming days. Imagine you are going to climb a mountain: You can scale abruptly or you can do a long, slow climb to arrive at the same point. For a health system dealing with coronavirus – especially a chronically overcrowded one such as Canada’s – dealing with a long, slow rise in cases is much easier than an abrupt increase.

That’s why social distancing matters.

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EFFectiveness OF SOCIAL distancing

during pandemics

The authors of a study, published in Emerging

Infectious Diseases, conducted a systematic

review of the effectiveness of six social-dis-

tancing measures during past flu pandemics.

They concluded that early implementation

delayed the peak in the number of infections,

relieving the burden on health-care systems by

spreading out the cases over a longer period

of time.

Without measures

With measures

Number of infections

Delaying the

peak of infections

reduces the burden

on health-care systems

Capacity of

health-care system

Cases are spread out

over longer period

Time since first case identified

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

fondazione gimbe (via m.w. fong et al, cdc,

emerging infectious diseases)

EFFectiveness OF SOCIAL distancing

during pandemics

The authors of a study, published in Emerging Infectious

Diseases, conducted a systematic review of the effective

ness of six social-distancing measures during past flu

pandemics. They concluded that early implementation

delayed the peak in the number of infections, relieving

the burden on health-care systems by spreading out the

cases over a longer period of time.

Without measures

With measures

Delaying the

peak of infections

reduces the burden

on health-care systems

Number of infections

Capacity of health-care system

Cases are spread out

over longer time period

Time since first case identified

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: fondazione

gimbe (via m.w. fong et al, cdc, emerging

infectious diseases)

EFFectiveness OF SOCIAL distancing during pandemics

The authors of a study, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, conducted

a systematic review of the effectiveness of six social-distancing measures during past flu pan-

demics. They concluded that early implementation delayed the peak in the number of infec-

tions, relieving the burden on health-care systems by spreading out the cases over a longer

period of time.

Without measures

With measures

Delaying the

peak of infections

reduces the burden

on health-care systems

Number of infections

Capacity of healthcare system

Cases are spread out

over longer time period

Time since first case identified

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: fondazione gimbe

(via m.w. fong et al, cdc, emerging infectious diseases)

Disrupting everyday life for a theoretical risk is a hard sell. But we can’t afford to become Italy, a country that was slow to act and is now paying a massive price, with more than 10,000 cases, 600 deaths and a collapsing economy.

Italy has an excellent health-care system and yet COVID-19 has hit it “like a bomb” according to a senior official, a grim reality that should serve as a cautionary tale for Canadian health officials.

The time to prepare for the worst is now.

We need to, in the immortal, if clichéd, words of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you manage your health, your finances and your family life as Canada reopens.
Visit the hub

In the interests of public health and safety, our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access. However, The Globe depends on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe to globeandmail.com. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.

Your subscription helps The Globe and Mail provide readers with critical news at a critical time. Thank you for your continued support. We also hope you will share important coronavirus news articles with your friends and family. In the interest of public health and safety, all our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access.

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