Robert Greenhill is executive chairman of Global Canada and former managing director of the World Economic Forum. These are his personal views.
Canada, and the world, faces a global pandemic on a scale that has not been seen since the Spanish flu epidemic of a century ago. In the last week alone, tens of thousands of people have been infected in over 100 countries, thousands of lives have been lost, trillions of dollars have evaporated in the stock markets and time-honoured concepts of international co-operation have been thrown out the window as nations around the world close their borders and block the export of medical products. A week has become an eternity.
The tragedy of the Spanish influenza was in the multitude of mistakes made during its global rampage over 15 months in 1918 and 1919. Slow reactions and dishonest communications (due to wartime censorship) translated into countless additional lives lost. The final death toll is put at somewhere between 50 million and 100 million.
The tragedy with the coronavirus today isn’t dishonesty. It is incrementalism. Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, Norway, modern sophisticated polities with high-quality health-care systems, are all reeling. In each of these places, the number of COVID-19 cases as a share of population has already exceeded China’s. The Italian health-care system, with more than 30,000 confirmed cases, is completely overwhelmed. Germany, Britain and the Netherlands are not far behind. Confirmed COVID-19 cases in these countries are doubling every 3 days.
There’s a simple explanation for the dire straits they find themselves in – they missed what a South Korean official has called “The Golden Hour,” the narrow window in which social distancing can still bend the trajectory of the contagion. Canada now must learn from those who are mere weeks ahead of us. Every day of hesitation or misplaced desire for nailing down the details will result in thousands more infected. Thus is the unforgiving nature of a pandemic.
At present, no countries outside China have proven they can stop COVID-19. South Korea, Singapore, possibly Taiwan have shown progress, although even their success is uncertain. They remain outliers because they moved quickly and decisively.
Canada has just a few days to join this exclusive group of democratic outliers. The question is not whether we will have to implement comprehensive tough restrictions like those belatedly introduced in Europe. The question is whether we will take the risk of putting in place these difficult, disruptive but necessary measures quickly enough. Remember, with a three-day doubling rate, a decision on Tuesday this week is 100 per cent more impactful than one on Friday. In dealing with pandemics, every day, every hour translates into lives lost or lives saved.
Think back a week to how inconceivable it seemed to cancel events or ban travel. Today, these measures seem simply prudent. The cost of going too slow is an almost certain overwhelming of our health system, even greater and longer-lasting economic disruption and, crucially, many thousands of avoidable deaths for Canadians.
Given the critical situation we face, the lower-risk route is to go very far, very fast.
Over the last several days, Canadian governments have made a number of important announcements. These are absolutely essential and require our full and active support. Yet they, and we, need to do more.
To optimize our chances, we need to do three things by Friday:
- Governments this week should implement a comprehensive, consistent coast-to-coast-to-coast lockdown of all but essential retail businesses, services and gatherings for the next four weeks. People should not be encouraged to stay at home, they should be required to.
- Everyone reading this piece must rigorously implement the actions that will break the chain of COVID-19 transmission while strengthening the bonds that hold us together as a community: physical distancing; staying at home; self-isolating if sick or returning from abroad; helping others and “caremongering” (online groups that share and organize community resources).
- Perhaps most importantly now, we must quickly and effectively engage the millions of Canadians who are not reading this piece, did not listen to the Prime Minister’s address, do not scan the WHO website for daily updates. We need to ensure that all Canadians are informed, convinced and doing the right things right away. If this is a war, we need to carpet-bomb with communications. Governments can set the message. It is the influencers, the creative industry and communications experts that can ensure the message is transmitted in ways that all Canadians understand and accept. Corporate Canada, with its tremendous communication capabilities, has a key role to play in ensuring all 38 million Canadians are on board by the end of this week. We need to be creative and we need to be fast.
When you know the ending of a novel, reading each chapter does not change the outcome. We know where we need to go to stop COVID-19. Let’s get there now.
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