Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }
Coronavirus information
Coronavirus information
The Zero Canada Project provides resources to help you make the most of staying home.
Visit the hub

People practise physical distancing at Woodbine Beach in Toronto on March 26, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Vincent Lam is the medical director of the Coderix Medical Clinic, an addictions medicine clinic, and a faculty member at the University of Toronto. He is the co-author, with Colin Lee, of The Flu Pandemic and You. He is a past recipient of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

Early in the first Star Wars movie, Princess Leia appealed across the galaxy via holographic transmission, pleading: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” She sent her missive to the Jedi Master on a faraway desert planet, hoping that he could save her home world of Alderaan, light years distant. The “ask” of COVID-19 physical distancing is just like this, minus the starships.

This comparison is not intended to make light of the seriousness of COVID-19, which has taken 21,297 lives at the time of this writing, and will certainly exact a far greater toll in the months and years to come. Without a doubt, a massive human tragedy is unfolding. If we are to mitigate this tragedy, like a reclusive Jedi Master, we must accept the fundamental disconnect between what each of us must do, and our own personal health outcomes. We are likely staying at home to save someone whom we have never met. Most health-related actions have consequences that relate personally to the actor. If I eat well and exercise regularly, my health improves directly and individually. If I smoke cigarettes while riding a motorcycle, the risks accrue primarily to myself. The risks of infectious illnesses, including COVID-19, accrue with less symmetry. Our actions affect others, whether by cough, touch or physical proximity. With a case fatality rate somewhere between 0.2 per cent and 20.2 per cent from COVID-19, depending upon an individual’s age, most of us will survive COVID-19 even if exposed to it. Even though we might prefer not to take our chances with a new zoonotic infection, each of us is still more likely to die of something else. However, what we know with certainty is that if there are more infections among our friends, family and colleagues, and if they strike more rapidly and overwhelm the health-care system, more people around us will die. How well we collectively adhere to physical-distancing measures will determine whether someone else, someone at a distance, someone whom we have never met – but who is not in a galaxy far, far away – will live or die.

Story continues below advertisement

It is important to distinguish between hopes and realities. Physical distancing is not our only hope in terms of addressing COVID-19. We hope to find effective treatments with medications, but these are not yet shown to work. We hope to have enough critical care beds to care for every severely ill patient, but this is proving to be a struggle even in wealthy societies. We can hope for a vaccine, which experts believe will take at least 18 months to be developed in the best-case scenario. The reality is that physical distancing, in contrast to these hopes, has been shown to have successfully contained COVID-19 in China for the time being, taking it out of the realm of “hope” and into the realm of imperative direction. The hope is that we all adhere to physical distancing, because it is the most solid strategy that we have to save lives.

Seeing Canadians out in crowds on the weekend when they're supposed to be keeping apart to stop the spread of COVID-19 is alarming, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says. He says enough is enough, and if things don't improve, fast, governments will step in with harsher controls. The Canadian Press

It has been said of disruptive public-health interventions, such as closing schools and shuttering businesses, “You’re damned if you don’t, and darned if you do.” One of the ironies of public-health interventions is that with greater success, come less dramatic outcomes. In fact, the successes of some public-health interventions provide the platform for their criticism. Immunizations for childhood illnesses have pushed measles, mumps and rubella out of everyday experience, giving anti-vaxxers a space within which to claim that vaccinations are unnecessary. Pasteurization of milk has eliminated the transmission of listeriosis, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and brucellosis through milk, and without any experience of these illnesses, some people want raw milk cheeses.

Public health is not like a film from the Star Wars franchise where, against all possible odds, the rebels prevail in a dramatic battle in the last few minutes to save the Rebel Alliance. Credits roll. In the best possible scenario, if the next months of physical distancing measures are highly successful at flattening the curve of COVID-19, there will be far fewer deaths in Canada than there would have been. If so, there might be voices that say “darned public health.” They may suggest that public-health officials overreacted, causing unnecessary disruption and economic impact. On the other hand, if not enough is done, deaths will skyrocket and harsher words than “damn” will be used. How much is “just right?" These decisions are made using mathematical models, sophisticated projections and, ultimately, judgment. To see what has happened in Italy, the answer to “how much should we do?” looks like “a lot.” In a letter to the Lancet, published on March 23, doctors from hard-hit Italy have called out to warn the world, “We urge all countries to acknowledge the Italian lesson and to immediately adopt very restrictive measures to limit viral diffusion, ensure appropriate health-system response, and reduce mortality, which appears to be higher than previously estimated.”

Matthew Hancock, the British Health Secretary, put it succinctly and well in addressing the British Parliament on Tuesday, saying that COVID-19 restrictions “are not advice, they are rules.” In order to slow the rate of transmission of COVID-19 and save lives, each of us must stay at home, with four exceptions: 1) buying basic necessities such as food, as infrequently as possible; 2) exercising once daily, alone or with members of the same household; 3) for medical need, or to provide care for a vulnerable person; 4) travelling to or from work, but only when work cannot be done at home. “These four reasons are exceptions to the rule.”

Picture yourself as Obi-Wan, Princess Leia’s last hope. Can you feel the Force? Somewhere out there in the galaxy is someone whose life depends upon what you do. Your mission: read the stack of books on your bedside table. Dust off the neglected exercise equipment. Cook creatively with the neglected cans in the back of your pantry. Make your toilet paper last a little longer before you go back to the store. May the Force be with you.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

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 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.

Related topics

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies