Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Support quality journalism
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24weeks
The Globe and Mail
Support quality journalism
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Globe and Mail website displayed on various devices
Just$1.99
per week
for the first 24weeks

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(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){console.log("scroll");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);

Michael Wolfson, PhD, is a former assistant chief statistician at Statistics Canada and a member of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa

Many governments, including Canada’s, have taken too long to recognize the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic when even days of delay can have large effects on the ultimate death toll. Our governments are only now recognizing that successfully flattening the epidemic curve means that we could be self-isolating for more than just a month or two.

Planning for the phase after – the time we begin relaxing the social-distancing measures – can and should start happening now.

Story continues below advertisement

If this relaxation is not done very carefully, the epidemic will simply resume. During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which killed tens of millions worldwide, some cities, such as St. Louis, quickly instituted rigorous social distancing, while others, such as Philadelphia, did not. Both had resumptions of the epidemic after their social distancing and quarantine efforts were relaxed.

At present, a major issue is that we do not even know, in Canada and in most other countries, how many individuals are infected. We know how many cases have been reported, but these tend to be individuals with more than very mild symptoms. Various studies have estimated that for every reported case, there could be anywhere from 10 to 100 unreported cases.

Successfully limiting the spread of the virus is possible, as we can see in Wuhan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. We can avoid the catastrophe unfolding in parts of Italy, where doctors are now having to decide who among their gravely ill patients can have their life saved with a ventilator.

But how will we know when and how to begin relaxing the very stringent social-distancing measures now being implemented, and allow Canadians to safely resume their daily lives without fear of getting sick, and without the risk of infecting anyone else?

For evidence-informed public-health policy, we need accurate information.

The latest on the coronavirus: Canada not at the point of declaring federal emergency, Trudeau says; O’Toole calls for delay in Conservative leadership vote

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

‘Can I take my kids to the park?’ And more coronavirus questions answered by André Picard

There is an international movement to develop smartphone apps that, with big data analytics, could provide critically needed real-time information to help track the pandemic. But serious options quickly run into questions of protecting personal privacy, especially with the public’s growing concerns about the behaviours of high-tech firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter.

So, is there a way, in Canada, to be both sensitive to very real concerns about personal privacy and use the obvious potential of social-media-type apps?

Story continues below advertisement

In principle, individuals with immunity could be issued a “green card” authorizing them to resume fully all their social activities. On the other hand, those who are infected would have a “red card,” while those who are still susceptible would be in a “yellow” state. In fact, China is implementing a system like this using a smartphone app already. If your phone shows red, your freedom is highly restricted.

Obviously in Canada, surveillance measures would have to be compliant with protections guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and relevant federal and provincial privacy laws. But there would be major benefits to developing this kind of data infrastructure to manage both the current and subsequent phases of the pandemic.

Public-health policy and implementation need smart ways to manage the relaxation of COVID-19 containment measures. This includes being able to quickly, in real time, identify clusters of new infections and isolate them; and to monitor people arriving from outside the country in case they become infectious.

Monitoring the movements of any already infected individuals will also be necessary in order to enforce isolation as the large pool of Canadians who would still be susceptible to infection returns to more normal social life. Canada’s current infectious-disease surveillance data flows are simply not up to the standards of countries such as Taiwan.

Still, there are very serious trade-offs here. The more detailed the data collected, the more sophisticated the evidence that can be produced to inform smart public health policy. But at the same time, more detailed data collection will be more invasive of individual privacy.

Being able to deploy this kind of real-time geographically detailed infectious disease surveillance requires serious planning by Canadian governments and key researchers now.

Story continues below advertisement

It is not too soon to begin discussing where to strike the right balance.

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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 globeandmail.com. 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
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 feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

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 letters@globeandmail.com. 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 letters@globeandmail.com. 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