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The call to duty for most Canadians is a modest one: Stay home.

Those of us lucky enough to have a white-collar job that can be done from the kitchen table are not being asked for much. Stay home.

There are many from whom much more is asked. Doctors and nurses. Police and firefighters. Workers keeping mass-transit systems rolling. Those labouring in Canada’s long food chain, from farmers to bakers, and from truckers to grocery store workers.

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Others can stay home. They cannot.

There will be many for whom these days and weeks will be particularly difficult. “Stay home” is simple enough if you have a home. Society’s most vulnerable are especially exposed at a time like this. The shuttering of public spaces, such as libraries and community centres, severs a lifeline.

There will be trials for Canadians in particular circumstances. The young woman about to give birth. The elderly man without family. Those stuck abroad, trying to get home. Those who have lost their jobs.

It is not often that our country asks anything of us. The privilege of Canadian citizenship tends to have many benefits, but few responsibilities.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, citizenship comes with a novel responsibility.

We live in fractured times, where the left and right enjoy treating each other as aliens, and where trust in politicians has dangerously eroded, particularly if they come from the “other” side. But a threat to all we share tends to get people remembering all that we hold in common.

When Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a Progressive Conservative, announces a state of emergency, and when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Liberal, says, “Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to,” they’re on the same page. And for now, they’re on the same team.

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The vast majority of healthy Canadians are not likely to be put in grave danger by the virus. But many others, from seniors to those in poor health, are at risk.

That’s why social distancing matters. It’s a chance to slow the increase in the number of people with the virus, thereby preventing the small percentage of infections that require hospitalization from growing into a number big enough to overwhelm the health-care system.

Social distancing is an act of social solidarity. The healthy person who doesn’t get infected, and doesn’t pass it on, is helping their neighbours.

What we know about COVID-19 suggests that, if no measures are taken, one infected person will pass it on to an average of 2.5 others over five days, and a month later more than 400 will be infected. Merely halving our exposure to others is likely to radically reduce the infection rate. Instead of 400 people infected in a month, it would be 15.

Quarantine and self-isolation are not a new science. Viruses have plagued humans forever, and every once in a while a new one comes along for which our immune systems are not well prepared.

A century ago, the 1918 flu pandemic killed upward of 100 million people. Social distancing kept that number from going higher. The case of two American cities offers a stark example. In the fall of 1918, Philadelphia dithered on social distancing, and St. Louis did not. The death rate in Philadelphia peaked at five times the level of St. Louis.

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St. Louis flattened the curve earlier, and reduced harm.

In early February, a collective of filmmakers in Milan made its first post on Instagram. It was an artsy music video. Life was still ordinary. There were, at the time, just a handful of cases in Italy.

This past Sunday, when there were 25,000 infected and 1,800 dead, the film collective posted a new short video of life in quarantine. It is a warning against complacency. Italy underestimated the virus, as has the world.

“What is happening is much worse than you thought it was,” one woman says.

The video also seeks out the best in us. “At first you’ll feel like you’re going insane,” a woman says. “You’re not alone,” reassures the next person. A third observes, “You’ll live moments of unity you would’ve never imagined.” People on their balconies, singing together.

Canadians are being called to duty. It is in the most trying times we define our truest selves. Heed the call.

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