For weeks now, medical experts and the nation’s public health officials have been saying that the key to stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus is social distancing. And after doing remarkably little to compel social distancing, Canada’s governments – federal, provincial and municipal – sprang into action last Thursday and Friday. So did large parts of the private sector. Concerts and conferences were cancelled. Professional sports leagues shut down. Schools were closed. Community centres and arenas were shuttered.
All of which means that Canada is taking many of the right steps. But are we taking all the necessary steps? What more must be done?
Those questions are crucial, because the price of being insufficiently prudent risks being very large.
This is not a time for the scoring of partisan political points; if there’s any sport that needs to be cancelled for the duration of the crisis, that’s it. And compared with the United States, this country’s governments, of all political stripes, appear to be getting a lot more right.
However, before we get too smug, there are reasons to wonder whether our political leaders, perhaps out of a reflexive fear of asking anything of voters, are not acting as aggressively as they could, and as quickly as they should.
For example, the Cineplex movie chain on Friday announced that it had “reduced capacity by a minimum of 50 per cent in all 1,693 theatre auditoriums across Canada to allow for social-distancing.” Good – but it is enough? Quebec doesn’t think so; on Sunday, Premier François Legault asked for the closing of “all places where people gather,” including bars, fitness centres, buffet restaurants and cinemas.
But as we went to press on Sunday afternoon, there was no indication that movie houses in the rest of the country would be shuttered.
Is that prudent?
And late last week, casinos began cancelling concerts and other entertainment, as a social-distancing measure. But as for the casinos themselves, though those in Quebec were ordered shut last week, Ontario’s remained open on the weekend, and were only forced to begin closing on Sunday.
Also this weekend, social media was replete with postings from people at Canada’s busiest airport, Pearson International in Toronto, who reported that when they returned from overseas, they were crowded into long lines at customs (so much for social distancing), were not screened in any meaningful way, and entered the country without so much as a suggestion to quarantine themselves.
Though the virus is now a global pandemic, until Sunday afternoon, the Canada Border Services’ Twitter account said that only travellers from China, Iran and Italy would be told to self-isolate, while all other travellers were merely being advised to “consider self-isolation.” Those rules were already out of date days if not weeks ago, yet they were not changed until late Sunday afternoon.
Is this the best Canada can do? No, it isn’t.
Our politicians, used to pandering for votes, find themselves in an unusual position. Most Canadians recognize this is a crisis of deadly proportions. They do not want to be pandered to. They do not want their politicians to tell them how little inconvenienced they will be, or how little a price they will be asked to pay. Canadians want to know that strong medicine of the public health variety is being applied. They’re ready to make sacrifices, if it will help.
Canadians are prepared to accept burdens and hardships to defeat the menace, because victory means avoiding much greater burdens and hardships in future. The good news is that it is possible to halt the spread of COVID-19, if the right actions are taken. Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan took tough measures and have succeeded. Despite their close connections with China, the starting point for the pandemic, they have endured nothing like Italy’s explosive outbreak.
Last week, we wrote that “no one ever regretted being over-prepared for a disaster." And we recommended that the best way for Canada’s governments to prepare was “by being over-prepared.” We stand by that.
That’s why Ottawa and the provinces should not just take the minimum measures necessary. Go further. Get ahead of the virus, if it’s still possible. If more social distancing is needed, and if more places where people meet need to close, close them, immediately. Canadians are ready.
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