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Signage directing traffic between Atlantic provinces is seen on the Trans-Canada Highway in Fort Lawrence, N.S., on June 24, 2020.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

On Jan. 10, Nova Scotia reported its daily COVID-19 data. The number of new cases? Zero.

As the pandemic’s second wave beats down on most of Canada, it is a striking figure: Zero. Nova Scotia’s journey started all the way back at the start of the pandemic.

When the first wave hit, the country quickly shut down. Atlantic Canada, however, instituted the strictest measures, according to the University of Oxford’s stringency index. Canada sort of closed its borders; the Atlantic provinces more tightly shut theirs, including to the rest of Canada. It wasn’t always easy. A rural bridge over the Tidnish River between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia saw armed conservation officers stationed there.

A second key decision was to maintain strict measures longer in the early going. Provinces outside Atlantic Canada eased up in May, whereas the four eastern provinces held on. They could have opened; there were few new cases. But the Atlantic provinces kept the public-health barricade up until new cases were decisively at or near zero.

That approach is what distinguishes Nova Scotia. Other provinces pursued variations on mitigation, aiming for a balance between health and the economy. In some places, such as British Columbia, that has worked reasonably well. Other provinces, notably Ontario and Quebec, constantly fretted about doing too much, too soon, and as a result of which they repeatedly did too little, too late. Nova Scotia went hard and early, and stayed vigilant, reaping long-term returns.

Atlantic Canada has some advantages: It is relatively isolated. But there’s reason to believe its success has at least as much to do with strategy as geography. Compare Nova Scotia with Saskatchewan. They have roughly the same population. Halifax is larger than Regina or Saskatoon. Yet Nova Scotia has had, as of Saturday, 1,554 total cases and 65 deaths since the start of the pandemic; Saskatchewan has seen 19,985 cases and 212 deaths. In the past week, Nova Scotia booked an average of four daily cases. Saskatchewan is at more than 300 a day. No one is in hospital in Nova Scotia because of the virus. In Saskatchewan, there are 199 people hospitalized.

Borders have been central to Atlantic Canada’s defence. In July, the Atlantic provinces created a bubble among themselves but the rest of Canada remained shut out and subject to a two-week quarantine, which also applied to returning locals. Widespread support for and compliance with the measures has been repeatedly credited. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil’s declaration in April – “stay the blazes home!” – became a collective rallying cry.

Vigilance is essential. In July, for the first time since the Second World War, the annual Lobster Carnival in Pictou on Nova Scotia’s North Shore didn’t take place, even as the province was reporting zero cases on most days. Nova Scotia also has never rescinded last March’s state of emergency and it has embraced rapid testing for people with no symptoms. In mid-November, after easing in the summer, Nova Scotia reinstituted some restrictions. The reason? It had seen a week with about three new COVID-19 cases a day – and that was enough of a storm warning to batten down.

Aiming for zero cases is tough, and there are no guarantees. Late last year, the Atlantic bubble broke apart, and walls are back up between the provinces. New Brunswick is now wrestling with a surge – relative to population, it has about an eighth as many daily cases as Ontario. Ontario’s outbreak, adjusted for population, is almost 60 times worse than Nova Scotia’s. As result, services in Nova Scotia, from restaurants to schools, are open. Life is considerably less abnormal than in the rest of the country.

Protecting public health did not ruin the economy. Research has shown that stricter health measures during the 1918 flu pandemic were associated with better economic outcomes; the East Coast appears to bear this out. In 2020, GDP fell less than in other provinces, according to RBC Economics.

In late December, a group of wide-ranging experts proposed “Building the Canadian Shield.” The Atlantic approach was cited as a model, and contrasted with the rest of Canada. The group also argues that the country remains at risk of a third wave, in the spring.

For Nova Scotia, an ounce of prevention has delivered pounds of cure. The province reached zero cases, and has managed to stick close to zero. Strong medicine, delivered early, allowed the patient to return sooner than the rest of the country to something close to prepandemic life.

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