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Toronto's Yonge St. on March 3, 2021.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Shutdown. Emergency brake.

In Doug Ford’s Ontario, these words have ceased to have meaning.

A “lockdown” literally means locking things down – or it should.

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Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

COVID-19 news: Updates and essential resources about the pandemic

Tracking Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans: A continuing guide

If a lockdown is going to have a real impact on slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it requires, for starters, a stay-at-home order and a curfew.

The “tough new measures” announced on Thursday include virtually no restrictions on movement or activities.

For all intents and purposes, nothing has changed; so, if new infections have been soaring for the past few weeks, what do we expect they will do now?

You don’t have to be an epidemiologist or a modeller to answer that question. But, for the record, the latest models predict up to 6,000 cases daily, an increase from about 2,500 currently, and a doubling of patients in intensive care to 800 from the current 421 by the end of the month.

The hospital situation is the most troubling. The last time Ontario started to max out its ICU capacity, there were about 3,500 cases a day. That’s a striking demonstration of how the variants are more brutal.

We need to remember too that younger people are now being infected and, while they are less likely to die than frail elders hit hardest earlier in the pandemic, they remain in hospital longer and are far more likely to have long-lasting symptoms. And, despite advances in treatment, about one-third of those who end up in COVID-19 intensive care end up dying.

These are not problems that can be solved by building hospitals or simply adding more ICU beds. Because a bed is not just a bed; it requires a highly skilled team of nurses, physicians and more, and 13 months into the pandemic, finding skilled health workers who are still standing is an ever-growing challenge.

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It’s not surprising then that those screaming loudest for a real lockdown are those on the front lines.

They see up close an out-of-control train hurtling their way and desperately want someone to pull the emergency brake – not just talk about doing it.

Applying an emergency brake means screeching to a halt, stopping dead in your tracks. At least it should.

There may be a lot of screeching in Ontario, but there’s not much stopping.

What the province is doing, at best, is coasting.

Relatively low-risk activities such as outdoor dining are being stopped, while high-risk activities such as large church services can go ahead. Retail stores are still open. Movie theatres will close, but why were they open in the first place?

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As the third wave of the pandemic continues to pick up steam, we have seemingly learned nothing from the two previous waves.

We can’t afford to blow it again.

One year ago, when the community spread of the novel coronavirus began in earnest in Canada – now known nostalgically, as the first wave – we had an opportunity to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, to shut it down.

Instead, most provinces dithered. We hemmed, we hawed and we embraced half-measures – mockdowns, not lockdowns.

Only the Atlantic provinces had the good sense to crack down hard and fast. They recognized that the best way to protect the economy is to protect people.

Other, larger provinces bought into the false health-versus-economy dichotomy and, worse yet, after the reluctantly tightened public-health measures, they reopened again too quickly and broadly.

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Unsurprisingly, a second wave occurred, more brutal than the first.

Almost one million cases and 23,000 COVID-19 deaths later, we’re back at it again.

We have faster spreading, more destructive variants and they are creating an even more ominous reality: It’s not just individuals getting infected anymore, but entire families. Not just frail elders falling ill, but younger, healthier people.

The situation in Ontario, and large parts of Canada, shouldn’t be this depressing and dire. Vaccines are going to help us rein in the pandemic, but we need time to get them into arms and time for them to work.

There will be a time to heal, and a time to build up again.

But right now is the time to lock down. For real.

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Health columnist André Picard answers reader questions about COVID-19 variants, how effective the various vaccines are and the impact of on-again, off-again lockdowns. The Globe and Mail

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