Let us tally up the butcher’s bill.
As of Thursday, nearly 8,500 Canadians had died from COVID-19, and more than 102,000 had contracted it. Thankfully, the number of new cases and deaths has steadily declined, and is now low. But the nationwide shutdown that flattened the curve has been exceptionally costly. The medicine’s side effects have been devastating.
Canada experienced the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression. A record number of Canadians are jobless; just one program to support them, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, is expected to cost $71.3-billion. The Parliamentary Budget Officer says the economy will finish the year $222-billion smaller, and the federal deficit will top $250-billion.
Canada imposed this pain on itself because, in the fight against the virus, it lacked other, more surgical tools.
As we near the end of the first round against the pandemic, Canada must give itself those precision tools.
Governments, led by Ottawa, were good at rushing out hundreds of billions of dollars to help jobless Canadians. They have been much less adroit at taking steps – much less costly steps – to obviate the need for businesses to shutter, and people to go without work.
What does Canada need to give itself a fighting chance at reopening, and staying open?
Testing and contact tracing: This week, Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, released some new modelling. “As we have relaxed distancing measures,” reads one of her slides, “strong contact tracing in B.C. has provided a buffer against renewed growth of cases.”
When testing shows that someone is infected, the next step is tracking down everyone they recently came into contact with. B.C.‘s modelling assumes that the less physical distancing there is, the more contact tracing is needed, and the faster it must be.
If Canadian public-health authorities can quickly track down every contact of an infected person, as happens in successful countries such as South Korea, then more economic shutdown measures can be eased. But to the extent that contact tracing is slow or incomplete, more physical distancing, and more restrictions on normal life, will likely be needed to prevent new outbreaks.
Masks: Can you name Canada’s first prime minister? A quarter of Canadians can’t. Do you know that the Queen is the head of state? Then you know something four out of five Canadians don’t. And while you may have heard that public-health officials “strongly advise” wearing a mask when in a public space, many Canadians clearly haven’t. In some stores, most customers are masked. In others, almost nobody is.
The message about masks needs to be clear and simple. It needs to be a rule, not one more bit of vague advice. Public-health authorities in each province, and at the local level, should have the power to order masking in public places, and to lift those orders when and where risks are low. The experience of several Asian countries suggests that masks may have a big impact in stemming the spread of the virus.
Protect seniors: The vast majority of Canadians killed by COVID-19 were residents of a long-term care facility. Canada, according to one recent study, has the world’s worst record on that score. Those are dismal statistics, but hidden in them is a sign of hope.
Quebec has a death rate from COVID-19 that is as high as Italy’s, because of so many fatalities in nursing homes. B.C., in contrast, despite having the country’s first nursing-home outbreak, prevented a multiplication of cases in those facilities – and as a result, the province’s overall death rate is barely higher than that of the most successful countries, such as Australia and South Korea. B.C. shows it is possible to protect the vulnerable, if the right steps are taken.
The border: Canada’s COVID-19 case count may be low and falling, but numbers are high and rising in the United States. That means keeping a lock on the border, and banning American tourists, is more important than ever. It also means we need a system to quickly test essential border-crossers, such as airline crew and truckers.
More hopefully, Canada may be able to look at eventually expanding our national bubble, by negotiating quarantine-free travel to and from low-infection countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia. But that can’t happen until we show that our own house is in order.