Skip to main content

To fight the coronavirus war, 38-million Canadians have been conscripted into the nation’s social distancing army. So if this is our era’s Second World War, when do we get our VE Day? When can we start demobilizing?

The bad news is that going all the way back to the no-restrictions world of 2019 won’t be possible any time soon, and probably not until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine. That may be a year away, maybe more. However, evidence is accumulating that Canada is beating down the growth rate of infections. It’s not yet possible to ease the economic lockdown, but it is possible to see that day, and to plan for it.

Moving from total war to a more targeted strategy of containment is dependent on Canada having the tools to reduce the chances of a renewed outbreak. Without better weapons of pandemic deterrence, the country may be forced to return, again and again, to an economically devastating lockdown.

April 16: Join André Picard for a live Q&A

Tell Canada’s health-care workers how great they really are

The weapon Canada needs in the months to come is one it should have had in abundance months ago: tests.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week that his state, with half as many people as Canada, should aim to have the ability to test hundreds of thousands of people per day, if it wants to reopen the economy and keep it open. “You could use 10 million tests in New York tomorrow just on going back to work,” he said. “Thirty million tests you could use. As many as you can make, you can use.” He’s right.

Testing is essential because, if you don’t know who is infected, you can’t quarantine them. Nor can you trace whom they came into contact with, and quarantine them, too. If you can’t see the target, you can’t launch a surgical strike. That’s why Canada’s approach for the last month has been the equivalent of carpet bombing. Lacking the tools to enumerate everyone with the virus, and those who have had it and are now immune, we’ve had no choice but to isolate everyone from everyone.

Easing up on that approach will only be possible if Canada equips itself with an arsenal of tests.

Can Canada do that? Yes. Virus testing is not an untried technology. Neither is contact tracing. There are new ways to use cellphones and data analytics to optimize tracing, and there are constant improvements in testing methods, such as the handheld DNA analyzers from Spartan Bioscience of Ottawa, which can process test results in under an hour. But the idea of testing and tracing is tried and true. This isn’t exactly the Manhattan Project.

Nor is testing particularly expensive – not compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars in lost economic activity that Canada is now suffering, and the hundreds of billions in deficit spending that Ottawa and the provinces have had to unleash to soften the blow. Spartan signed a contract earlier this month to sell Alberta 250 analyzers and 100,000 testing kits. Price: $9.5-million.

Canada is currently testing about 18,000 people a day – more than many countries, but far below our actual needs. Canada must have the means to test anyone showing symptoms, and everyone who has had contact with them. It needs to regularly screen health care workers and patients in hospitals and nursing homes. We’ve also got to be able to quickly test the thousands of truckers who daily cross the border. Can Canada do that? Yes. Virus testing is not an untried technology. Neither is contact tracing, too.

And we’ve got to be able to test lots of random people with no symptoms at all.

What’s more, Canadian physicians and hospitals need enough tests to test people again, and again, if their symptoms and lab results don’t agree. Like bullets, tests don’t always hit the mark. They can give false positives, and false negatives. Extra testing can lower those error rates.

All of which calls for a lot more than 18,000 tests a day.

It’s unlikely that Canadians can be fully demobilized until the world sees a COVID-19 vaccine – that war-ending weapon is this era’s Manhattan Project.

Until then, we have to keep flattening the curve by staying home, before turning to aggressive testing and tracing to keep it planked, accompanied by careful border control and targeted social distancing, likely including indefinite restrictions on most public gatherings.

That should give Canada the opportunity to reopen much of the economy and allow most people to go back to work, while giving us a fighting shot at avoiding another outbreak, and another lockdown.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.