While there is still some debate about how swiftly the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading around the world, what’s clear is that its consequences are moving at the speed of light.
In a span of less than 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak to be a pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump suspended flights from most European countries for 30 days, Ontario closed its public schools until April 5, Quebec and Alberta told residents to cancel or postpone any gathering of more than 250 people, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League paused their regular seasons, major museums and arts venues in New York shut their doors, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into isolation after his wife, Sophie Grégoire, developed flu systems and was tested for the coronavirus.
These developments came on the heels of a countrywide lockdown imposed by the government in Italy, where citizens have been told to stay home other than to procure food and medicines. Universities around the world, including Harvard, have ended classes early, sending students home and telling them to finish their studies online.
What these things have in common is that they are all forms of social distancing – public measures to keep people away from each other.
The goal of social distancing, whether through an enforced school closure or a shuttered event, is to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And in the past couple of days, experts in the country have been calling for it, provinces and cities have been implementing it, and Ottawa is getting left behind.
Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, said Wednesday that social distancing is the best way to “flatten the curve” on the virus’s spread; that is, to prevent it from infecting too many people too quickly, and putting overwhelming pressure on the health system.
British Columbia’s Centre for Disease Control warned Wednesday that “mass gatherings can contribute to the transmission" of the virus causing COVID-19.
But with everyone from hockey fans to fine-art lovers suddenly being told to stay home, the federal government has remained less than clear on the issue.
That seems remarkably at odds with the fact that Health Minister Patty Hajdu says between 30 per cent and 70 per cent of Canadians could become infected with the coronavirus.
Given this, it would make sense for Ottawa to take a firm stand on a preventative measure that public health officials believe is a critical course of action.
But that hasn’t happened. Ms. Hajdu on Thursday suggested in the House of Commons that people should reconsider attending events with large crowds. But she went no further.
With all the related developments in the world, Canadians might be confused about whether they should stay home or not. The fact that some provinces are taking tougher stances than Ottawa adds to the confusion.
Along with Quebec, Alberta and Ontario’s measures announced Thursday, New Brunswick says any public school student who travels abroad during March break will have to spend 14 days at home before returning to class. Montreal on Thursday closed its municipal arenas, libraries, pools and sports centres.
There may be valid reasons for Ottawa’s cautious approach. For instance, virtually all the infections in Canada to date have been traced back to contact with people who had recently spent time overseas. The coronavirus doesn’t appear to be circulating in the community; enforcing a ban on all public activities might be overkill.
And closing schools is an extreme measure that will impose a significant hardship on working parents – particularly health-care workers. They are on the front lines and the country needs them to be at liberty to stay there.
At the moment, however, extreme responses are being taken as a form of prudence. And they may well be. Government officials in Italy, casting their minds back a few weeks, are surely wishing they’d done more, and sooner.
But our choices are not limited to close everything or close nothing. As such, Canadians need more clarity about the decisions their governments are making. Are these moves, to shut some institutions and events, but not others, informed by the best science?