A week is a long time in politics. It’s also a long time for a virus with an incubation period measured in days.
It was nearly four weeks ago when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prorogued Parliament, setting the table for what his government hinted would be a big-spending, knock-out-the-lights, postpandemic Throne Speech. If the opposition opposed, the Liberals would be given the gift of an early election. If the opposition blinked, the Liberals could get to the business of moving on from COVID-19, and building the green New Jerusalem.
Four weeks ago, the Trudeau government appeared eager to write a Sept. 23 Throne Speech that was all about the pandemic equivalent of the postwar world.
The novel coronavirus has had other ideas. Sorry, Ottawa: It’s not yet VE Day.
In much of Canada, the number of COVID-19 cases has been rising, slowly but steadily, since early August.
British Columbia has been a leader in containing COVID-19, but on Thursday it announced yet another record number of new cases in the province, with 139 infections. The province’s caseload is still low, as are hospitalizations. But the trend is not in the right direction. Earlier, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry described B.C. as experiencing not so much a second spike as a “second ripple.”
That’s why B.C. last week ordered the closing of all nightclubs and stand-alone banquet halls, and told bars, pubs and restaurants to stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. It’s only a small rollback of the province’s reopening, but the direction is significant. For the first time in months, the needle of economic activity has had to be ever-so-slightly dialled back.
It’s a similar story in Ontario. On Friday, the province reported more than 200 new infections, a benchmark not cleared since mid-July. Ontario’s numbers remain well below where they were in the spring, and the number of people hospitalized remains low. But as in B.C., the trend is not positive. A formerly flattened curve is, slightly but perceptibly, bending back up.
That’s why Ontario last week imposed a “pause” on any further loosening of public-health measures.
In Alberta, which saw its own upward ripple in cases last month, the province announced it is hiring more contact tracers, the better to track down those who came into contact with a positive case. The province is testing heavily and widely, which is good, but there are reports that test results can take a week to come back, which is not good. (A week isn’t a long time in contact tracing – it’s an eternity).
It all suggests that the province, which did a solid job of reining in an outbreak in the spring, may not be as ready as it needs to be to keep the lid on any new outbreaks.
Across the country, children are going back to school – and Job No. 1 for every government is to make sure that can happen. Education is among the most essential of essential services.
As we have repeatedly written, it is possible to get most kids into school, and keep them there safely, if the right measures are taken in schools and across society.
However, a safe and sustained school reopening depends on containing the number of COVID-19 cases in society at large. With careful planning, that’s a goal that can be achieved. But it is not something that can be assumed.
Then, there’s the economy. If a week is a long time in politics, it’s an instant in economic time. The Canadian economy has bounced back with unexpected speed and, as Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem noted on Thursday, the country quickly recovered two million of the three million jobs lost in the pandemic.
But he warned that the return of the remaining million lost jobs would be much slower. “The pandemic put us in a very deep hole,” he said, “and we still have a long climb ahead.”
A number of industries, notably travel and tourism, remain largely shutdown. Universities and colleges are operating, but the business of foreign students, which supports a large number of Canadian jobs, is hamstrung.
And the country next door remains an infection hotbed, averaging around 1,000 deaths a day in August. The U.S. economy, the main destination for our exports, remains fragile.
So what should Ottawa be focusing on right now?
All of the above.
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