It’s the virus that’s sweeping the planet. As of Thursday, COVID-19 had been confirmed in close to 50 countries. Places that had no known cases a few days ago now have hundreds, if not thousands. Japan has closed its schools. Italy has effectively sealed off the Lombardy region in the north. Saudi Arabia has suspended all travel for pilgrimages to the country’s Islamic holy sites.
In Canada, a man in Toronto whose wife recently travelled to Iran was named Ontario’s sixth confirmed case. Each day brings new reports of outbreaks in every corner of the world: Europe, the Middle East, North America, Asia. Stock markets have plunged, as fears about travel restrictions and disrupted supply chains send investors looking for cover.
And yet, at the world teeters on the edge of a pandemic – that extremely rare occasion when a disease reaches epidemic levels in multiple regions or continents – the best thing the average person can do, other than washing their hands regularly and developing the iron discipline required to stop yourself from touching your face, is to maintain a Victorian stoicism.
Keep calm and carry on, in other words.
It will be interesting to see whether we all can do this in what would be the first pandemic in the age of social-media alarmism, and the widespread dissemination of another virus: deliberate misinformation.
All of which is also happening in an era of populism, marked by a growing distrust of experts and expertise.
It is not at all reassuring, but perfectly befitting of the times, that U.S. President Donald Trump has named Vice-President Mike Pence to head his country’s task force on COVID-19.
As governor of Indiana, Mr. Pence’s ideological opposition to needle exchanges led to an outbreak of HIV/AIDS in that state in 2015. His record on controlling pandemics and understanding their severity is abysmal, and the judgment of his boss on the same matter is questionable. In 2018, the Trump administration fired the military official in charge of leading the White House’s response to a pandemic and gutted his team without replacing it.
Canada is taking the risk more seriously because of the fact that, in 2003, Toronto was one of the main hot spots in the SARS epidemic.
Poor communication and a lack of resources and proper protocols led to the spread of the virus and contributed to the deaths of 44 people. That prompted Ottawa to create the Public Health Agency of Canada, with 2,400 employees and its own laboratory facilities.
One of the agency’s chief roles is to co-ordinate the response to pandemics, test for new cases and enforce protocols that can limit the spread of a virus.
It has published regular updates online – there were 13 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of Thursday – and is advising Canadians on how to protect themselves.
Ottawa has been active, too. It has repatriated Canadians stranded in China and on a cruise ship under quarantine in Japan; the Public Health Agency has overseen their quarantines on Canadian soil. And the government has increased surveillance at borders, to better identify infected travellers.
So far, so good. But the coming weeks and months will test how well the lessons of 2003 have been learned. We may also find out whether the fact-based information coming from the Public Health Agency and other government sources can compete with what people see on their social-media feeds. It doesn’t take much to start a panic.
Much of Canada’s success in controlling the spread of COVID-19, and the fears surrounding it, will also depend on how well other countries do the same job.
And if the current trends continue and a pandemic develops, Ottawa will have to take more action.
One situation that hasn’t been discussed to date is that of workers who may not be in a position to remain home if they develop COVID-19 symptoms. Many lack the ability to give up their pay for two weeks, the recommended quarantine period. Is there a way to make such a sacrifice viable for them?
In the meantime, Canadians should indeed remain calm, wash their hands and carry on.
If the COVID-19 outbreaks bloom into a pandemic, this will be even more critical. Countries that put reason and science at the forefront of their responses will be the ones that come out the best at the other end.