Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has held a news conference almost every day during the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s significant that he announced this week that he would stop doing his daily PM Unplugged act in front of Rideau Cottage, and would only address the country as needed.
Perhaps the Liberals have simply run out of spending announcements. The rescue programs they launched are up and running; there may be diminishing political return in Mr. Trudeau standing every morning at the microphone, largely reselling and repackaging existing policies while Parliament sits on the sidelines.
The fact is the data show that Canada has the novel coronavirus under control, for now and hopefully for the future. The country is well into a new, post-emergency stage of the pandemic.
Data from Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam show that Canada’s effective reproduction number has been below one for eight weeks, a solid indication that the growth of the disease has been reversed.
The country’s current rate of new confirmed cases – averaging just over 300 per day over the last week, sometimes higher due to localized outbreaks – is sustainable. Our health system won’t buckle under it.
It’s the lockdown that is unsustainable. Canada needs to reopen, for the sake of an economy that shrank enormously in March and April, and of the millions who have been laid off and living under strict distancing requirements for more than 100 days.
But the country needs to reopen in a safe and predictable fashion, with a steady forward progression, and without the reversals that are plaguing the United States.
There, states are cancelling or scaling back reopening plans, after a dramatic spike in cases. The U.S. is now experiencing its highest infection rate ever, setting a record of more than 50,000 new cases on Wednesday.
Much of that is occurring in states that, unlike Canada, didn’t implement rigorous physical-distancing requirements to begin with – places like Florida, Texas and Arizona. Things have also been made worse by the Trump administration’s mixed messages, and by a left-right political polarization around everything, including physical distancing and the wearing of masks.
Canada’s response, while slow to get going, has been more cohesive and rational. People almost universally bought in to the need for physical distancing, and masks are becoming increasingly common.
The question now is, what will things look like in a month, or three? The incubation period of the virus means there will always be a lag of up to two weeks between someone being exposed and then becoming a known case.
Will there be spikes in the coming weeks? Almost certainly. But that won’t necessarily indicate that Canada is off-track, or that the reopening has to be cancelled.
What will matter is how quickly these spikes are identified and isolated by provincial and local public health officials. The competent handling of an outbreak that began in a nail salon in Kingston, Ont., last week is proof that an event that could have spread widely can be contained with contact tracing and testing.
At the same time, a cluster involving 180 workers at an Ontario farm last weekend shows there is still a lot of work to do in that regard, and that physical distancing remains essential in crowded spaces and tight workplaces.
Equally important will be a continued commitment to mask-wearing and hand-washing. Toronto passed a bylaw on Tuesday enforcing the use of masks in indoor public places, a move that experience suggests will go a long way toward preventing the spread of the disease as people return to work.
Ottawa and the provinces should proceed cautiously in the coming weeks, and make sure they are fully equipped to tackle and defeat new outbreaks, whether domestic or imported. Before moving to further stages of reopening, public health officials must give the public confidence that they can effectively contain each and every new cluster, and prevent Canada from ending up like the United States.
The last thing Canada needs, and the last thing Canadians can endure, would be a premature declaration of “mission accomplished,” followed by a new virus wildfire that locks us all up again.