We are living in uncertain times. The sight of businesses in some American cities boarding up their windows as insurance against postelection violence is nerve-shattering. Our neighbours are contemplating the previously unthinkable, namely that democracy itself may be at stake.
The United States is at the same time living through another wave of the worst pandemic in generations. Case numbers in the U.S. are spiking again, as are deaths. The situation is worse in much of Europe. Countries that flattened the curve over the summer – raising hopes that the worst was over – are now dealing with unprecedented spikes, forcing many into renewed lockdowns.
And although case and death rates in Canada are still far below those in Europe and the U.S., this country’s infection numbers have for several weeks been climbing, and following a disturbingly familiar path.
France, Spain, Britain and Germany – along with Quebec and the most populous parts of Ontario – have reintroduced closings of restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres and concert halls, and are discouraging unnecessary travel and gatherings. Parts of France and Spain are under nighttime curfews; the Premier of Manitoba says one is possible in his province.
The unspoken message is that battling the pandemic in most Western countries has been reduced to a permanent loop of lockdown and reopening.
There is a good chance that, in Canada, case numbers will drop thanks to the latest lockdowns, bringing the pandemic under control once again. But what happens then? Another loosening of restrictions, followed by another spike in cases, followed by another lockdown just in time for Christmas? And then another repeat of the cycle in 2021?
We have to aim for something better.
When it comes to the U.S. election, we have no control over what happens. The pandemic is a very different story. Canada’s results are entirely dependent on the actions of Canadians and their governments. We are the masters of our fate.
Our governments need to acknowledge and embrace that.
One way to control the pandemic is through repeated impositions of lockdowns of large parts of the economy. These work – but at tremendous cost. Is there a plan to rely ever less on lockdowns, and ever more on a massive testing and tracing effort, of the type Ottawa and the provinces have so far failed to set up?
Our politicians remain too reliant on lockdowns, in part because they’ve seen that much of the Canadian economy can bounce back when restrictions are eased. The country’s GDP is expected to have risen in the third quarter of this year by record amounts, after falling at an annualized rate of 38.7 per cent in the second quarter. The country is “only” about a million jobs short of where it was last February.
As long as Ottawa can keep borrowing at record-low rates in order to support individuals and businesses, and as long as the economy remains resilient, there appears to be insufficient impetus for elected officials to do more than wait for a vaccine to arrive.
Canada can and should be doing so much more.
Slovakia, a country of 5.4 million with an economy one-sixteenth the size of Canada’s, announced on the weekend that it intends to test every citizen over the age of 10. The effort will be difficult, and the method used may not achieve its goals – but it at least shows the kind of imagination and ambition that Canada has been lacking.
One study published in late October said Canada should aim to control virus spread in part by testing 500,000 people a day (up from around 75,000 now), with greater emphasis on less expensive but faster antigen tests. Although not as accurate as the diagnostic PCR test, antigen tests in high-risk areas could help to limit infections and save lives, even while allowing more of the economy to remain open.
In an era of so much uncertainty, an ambitious national display of co-operation to build the world’s best system for testing and contact tracing would provide Canadians with the sense that their governments are planning ahead. It would also provide hope that the stage is being set for a future where Canada does not go down the same path as Europe and the U.S.
Instead, our leaders are making difficult times even more difficult by failing to be bold.
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