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Drivers wait to cross through Canadian customs at the Canada-U.S. border near the Peace Arch Provincial Park in Surrey, British Columbia on March 16, 2020.

JESSE WINTER/Reuters

Monday was not the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada. But it was at least the end of the beginning.

Over the past few days, the situation has worsened. The number of cases has climbed, and quickly. But the shock has also pushed Canada’s governments to act, quickly. Steps that would have seemed extreme last week – closing schools, cancelling events, shutting restaurants – are now applauded and demanded.

The disease is progressing, but so is the response. We win if the response is the faster of the two. We lose if it isn’t.

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There is still time to flatten the curve of new infections. The key is social distancing, which governments are finally imposing, to varying degrees, across the country.

The bad news, which makes social distancing so essential, is that there are growing signs of community spread of the infection, meaning transmission between Canadians. Up to now, infections in this country were overwhelmingly linked to travellers, or to Canadians returning from overseas.

The number of cases has also climbed. A week ago, Canada had seen just 77 cases since the start of the outbreak. As of Monday afternoon, that figure had climbed to more than 400. Anyone who understands compound interest can appreciate the math. Something that starts out very small remains small for a long time, even if it’s doubling every few days. One case becomes two. Two becomes four. Four becomes eight. No worries.

But as the numbers get bigger, the compounding effect begins to be felt. Between Friday and Sunday, the number of cases in Canada as tracked by The Globe and Mail using government statistics climbed by more than 50 per cent, to more than 300. If that rate of new infections were to be sustained, Canada would have more than 1,000 cases by next weekend, and more than 7,000 by the end of the month.

If the spread speeds up, we’ll have more. But if it can be slowed, we’ll have fewer.

Right now, Canada’s level of infection is far below that of the worst-hit European countries, such as Italy or Spain. Spain’s tally of the dead hit 288 on Sunday – with roughly half having died during the previous months, and the other half having passed away on Sunday.

In this country there have only been four deaths, all related to a long-term-care centre in North Vancouver. It feels controlled and limited right now; our numbers are still small. However, the progression of cases in Canada suggests we are at risk of winding up on the Spanish track, unless we slow the spread of the virus. A couple of weeks ago, Spain didn’t think it was on this road, and it didn’t think it needed to take radical steps.

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We still have time to flatten the curve. And governments across Canada are finally taking advantage of the window of opportunity.

The big news on Monday was Ottawa’s decision to largely close the border to travellers, other than Canadian citizens, permanent residents and Americans. The Trudeau government also said that everyone who crosses the border into Canada, other than essential workers, needs to go into self-quarantine for 14 days.

It effectively means a temporary ban on travel from the rest of the world. While U.S. tourists coming to Canada is still a theoretical possibility, the obligation to quarantine for two weeks makes the issue largely moot. And at their Monday press conference, Trudeau government ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, hinted that after talks with Washington, more restrictions might be coming.

What would make sense next would be a halt to most travel between Canada and the United States – with an exemption for essential travellers, including truckers, train operators, air crew and others keeping our supply chains moving.

The most significant news may have come from Ontario, where the chief medical officer restricted gatherings to fewer than 50 people and asked bars and restaurants to close, other than those serving takeout meals. Other provinces should consider doing likewise.

A maximum effort, involving border containment to stop the introduction of new cases, and social distancing to short-circuit the transmission of the virus among Canadians, stands an excellent chance of getting the job done. The sooner Canada succeeds, the sooner life gets back to normal. Let’s get to it.

In the interests of public health and safety, our coronavirus news articles are free for anyone to access. However, The Globe depends on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe to globeandmail.com. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.

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