As provinces across the country prepare to take the first tentative steps toward unshackling their economies, there is a sense of foreboding across the land.
Underlying that fear is the question: what if it doesn’t work? What if it’s too much, too soon, and it ignites a second deadly wave of the novel coronavirus, and everything has to be shut down again?
What if, in relaxing some of the measures put in place to halt the spread of the disease, some assume that an inch of relief entitles them to a mile of freedom? Throw in the coming summer weather, and the challenge politicians and public health officials have before them is enormous.
If you desire an illustration of what I’m talking about, allow me to point you in the direction of news reports out of the U.S. this past weekend. A heatwave in southern California sent thousands of people flocking to the beach, this despite pleas by state officials to stay home and abide by proper physical-distancing protocols. The Orange County Register reported that 40,000 people made their way to Newport Beach over the Friday-to-Saturday period.
When beachgoers were questioned about why they were there, the responses were generally of the same variety: it’s 93 degrees out; you can’t expect people to be cooped up in their homes all day; you can maintain physical distance on a beach, too.
Yes, this is the United States, but if you don’t think this attitude exists in Canada, you’re naive. The heat is coming, and you are going to see crowds gather on beaches and in parks. And if they get chased away by bylaw officers, they will find other places to congregate on hot, sweaty nights.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford won kudos for calling those who showed up at Queen’s Park to demonstrate against the COVID-19 restrictions a bunch of “yahoos.” Well, he hasn’t seen anything yet.
I predict some ugly confrontations this summer, ones that pit those who want to remain vigilant and abide by physical-distancing rules against those who flout them. And this could very well lead to a generational conflict.
A friend in Toronto recently witnessed a confrontation near her home between a father, out for a stroll with his young son, and a young adult who, in passing by the pair, had encroached on their space at an unsafe distance, the father felt. It incited a nasty screaming match between the two, one that stopped everyone walking nearby in their tracks. No doubt nerves are frayed. But they will become even more so, the longer self-isolation drags on.
Most people have already forgotten those studies being talked about in the media less than a month ago, suggesting that stopping the assault of COVID-19 on the masses (and from preventing intensive-care units from being overrun with virus cases) would take eight months or more of strict physical-distancing conventions.
You think people are getting squirrely now?
B.C.’s Health Minister Adrian Dix was alive to this situation when I talked to him last week. “After telling people to stay home, we’re now saying you mostly have to stay home so we can safely reopen parts of the economy,” he told me. “The coming weeks will be really, really challenging.”
There is more than a little riding on the next few months. Governments around the world are going to try to restart businesses again. It will have to be done with incredible precision, which is an almost unthinkable task when you consider the hurly-burly nature of global capitalism. It’s not used to operating with constraints, which it will wear for now and into the foreseeable future.
But a worse scenario is this: People in this country and elsewhere behave irresponsibly and incidences of the virus once again spike to dangerous levels. Fearing that a growing number of cases will swamp emergency rooms, public officials announce a new lockdown and immediately close all but essential businesses.
That would be devastating, because as expensive as it is to close a business, it’s as costly or more, in some cases, to reopen it. Opening and closing and opening and closing to a cadence set by the rise and fall of the virus is just not a viable option for most companies.
That’s why the period we are about to enter is, as Mr. Dix suggested, so complex and difficult. More than anything, it will test the relationships we have with one another like never before.
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