The physical distancing measures in place across Canada will absolutely be outdated in two weeks’ time. Probably one week’s time.
The number of patients infected with COVID-19 across the country has not yet peaked, meaning the situation is still expected to get worse. The pressure on our provincial health-care systems will thus continue to intensify. And with that, we can expect further restrictions on movement, enhanced protective measures and scaled up enforcement efforts to try to slow the spread of infection.
For months, and especially in recent weeks as we’ve watched the novel coronavirus tear through northern Italy, epidemiologists and public-health experts have been warning us that the only way to get on top of the resulting COVID-19 disease is to get ahead of it. That is, to implement the measures today that will only really seem necessary weeks from now. If in the end, it looks like we overreacted, we can be confident that our containment efforts ultimately were successful.
Looking back just three weeks, when everyday life was still pretty much normal, it certainly feels as though the pace of change in Canada has been decidedly swift. Indeed, within just that short time, schools have closed, many workplaces have shut down, public gatherings have been cancelled and the border has mostly slammed shut.
But in terms of actual directives and enforcement, the rollout has been more gradual. Provinces that initially requested the closing of non-essential businesses have, more recently, ordered them shut down. The 14-day isolation period for incoming travellers, which was previously a request, only became a federal directive under the Quarantine Act last week. And the instruction that symptomatic Canadians stay home and isolate became an explicit prohibition on boarding domestic flights and trains just this past Monday.
There is no practical use in debating now whether these measures ought to have been enforced more quickly. The mantra of disease containment is always that earlier is better, though hindsight confers a level of confidence that in-the-moment decision-making simply does not yield.
Obviously, had we known what we know now, Health Minister Patty Hajdu wouldn’t have suggested border controls are useless in mitigating the spread of disease. But we can’t go back and change that. What we can do is anticipate where we’re going and make those changes now.
Provinces still allow small gatherings of people who don’t live in the same home (at the time of writing, Alberta permits groups of 15 or fewer, Manitoba allows up to 10, Ontario and Nova Scotia up to five). That should end. No more physical socializing with those outside the home.
The rules across provinces should be standardized. Otherwise, it’s impossible for the average person to keep track of the ever-changing rules, which is of particular importance to those who live along provincial borders. To that end: The provincial lists of “essential” businesses should be whittled down to true essential businesses. Condo construction should be put on hold. No one needs to be shopping for new laminate flooring right now.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, needs to clarify and explain her opposition to the widespread use of masks, which is now mandatory in the Czech Republic and required for grocery store shopping in Austria. Disease control experts in South Korea, China and Taiwan cite them as essential to disease control.
On Monday, Dr. Tam said, “Putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial, obviously, if you’re not infected," though research shows that asymptomatic people may be infected and spread the virus without knowing it.
Research also shows that even homemade masks, which do not affect the supply of masks for health-care workers, can control the spread of viruses and have been recommended in other pandemic situations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States is considering recommending masks for the general public. Canada either needs to get on board, and quickly, or explain the reason it will not.
And perhaps most important: Suggestions need to become rules, enforcement stepped up. Halifax police have already issued tickets for people violating emergency orders and Toronto police say they will soon follow suit. But Calgary, as of right now, says it will not, which is a position that assumes we have time for incremental measures.
The most extreme consideration is of cellphone tracking to monitor those in self-isolation, which is hugely fraught from a privacy and data collection perspective, but considering the damage a single infected person can inflict on a population, it could very well be necessary.
After all, over just a few weeks, we’ve watched the unthinkable become essential. We need to anticipate what will become essential soon and enact those measures now.
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