“Ottawa is spending big-time to slow the recession. It’s not spending nearly enough on stopping the virus.”
That was the headline on our editorial of May 11. It still rings true.
Four months ago, this country was in the thick of the first wave of the pandemic. The main tool for stemming the spread was a partial economic shutdown. That shutdown threw millions of Canadians out of work; millions of Canadians without work forced the government to budget hundreds of billions of dollars to support them.
Canada went to war against COVID-19 in a state of semi-disarmament. That meant that a national program of physical distancing and business shutdowns, with the inevitable side effect of a recession, was the best option for fighting the virus and saving lives.
This page backed the lockdown, and the need for government to spend massively to support Canadians whose jobs were hit by the pandemic, and the fight against it. There was, at the time, no better option.
“Under the circumstances,” we wrote, “that government spending is good and necessary.”
“But,” we asked, “are our governments devoting enough time, energy, research and money to changing those circumstances?”
Analogizing the pandemic to a fire, we asked whether Canada would in future be better served by investing a lot more “in fire prevention and suppression – the public-health equivalents of smoke detectors, sprinklers, fire engines and firefighters?”
“Are Ottawa and the provinces,” we asked on May 11, “spending enough on the tools to stop the fire from flaring up again and to ensure that, if it does, we’ll be able to fight it without locking down the entire neighbourhood?”
Our answer then: “Not yet.”
Four months later, a second wave now appears to be upon us. Is Canada better prepared than it was for Round One?
In many ways, yes. The country has far more testing capacity. Mask-wearing is widespread. And the fatal mistakes made in nursing homes, which led to most of Canada’s COVID-19 deaths, are well understood and unlikely to be repeated.
But despite that progress, the country does not yet appear to be as well prepared as it could be. Unfortunately, some of what we wrote on May 11 still stands.
“With the right tools,” we wrote then, “it should be possible to limit the spread of the virus and do so without having to rely as much on the use of costly economic lockdowns.
“But doing so will call for a lot more public-health capacity, and probably spending, so that we can instantly diagnose anyone who has the virus and immediately track down anyone and everyone in contact with them.
“It means much more testing capacity and the ability to turn around results in minutes or hours, not days.
“It means lots of new public-health employees, working with carefully chosen technology, to trace and find everyone who has been in contact with an infected person.
“It means creating systems to ensure that quarantined people stay isolated.
“It means new strategies, and probably a lot of new personnel, so that we can keep the border closed to the virus but open to goods and people.”
The tally of daily cases is still relatively low, but the numbers are rising. To deal with a possible spike, British Columbia last week released a plan that includes hiring more health care workers and ramping up testing. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Teresa Tam, says that the country needs more and faster tests, such as rapid saliva tests.
And in Ontario, where many testing centres are seeing huge lineups, the government says it will soon release a fall preparedness plan. Premier Doug Ford says that, depending on the course of the virus, all measures are on the table, including further shutdowns.
Targeted closings of non-essential industries – do strip clubs really need to be open? – may be called for. But the focus of more government spending and planning should be on improving the country’s ability to test, trace and isolate every positive case.
Canada used a big, blunt tool – a shutdown – to defeat the first wave. It worked, but with painful and costly side effects. This time around, the country should be aiming to use surgical instruments as the main line of defence.
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