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The emergency department entrance to St. Paul's hospital in downtown Vancouver is pictured in this file photo from March 19, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Canadians enjoy a remarkable amount of freedom. Our governments ask little of us, aside from respecting the law and paying our taxes. Living in Canada confers far more benefits than it does responsibilities and duties.

But now that has changed. People who return to Canada from international travel are being asked to isolate themselves for 14 days. People who have symptoms related to COVID-19 are being told to do the same. Everyone else is being urged to stay home as much as possible, and to socially distance themselves from friends and strangers.

It’s a generational call to national duty; a request to do our part in the war on the coronavirus. All Canadians not living in a cave know by now that social distancing and self-isolation are the most urgent actions that we can take at this point in the outbreak.

But too many people aren’t listening. Social media are replete with images of Canadians gathering on beaches and in parks, or having friends over for dinner. In Nova Scotia, the government was so miffed at the sight of hundreds of people blatantly violating its social-distancing rules over the weekend that on Sunday it declared a state of emergency. It has closed its provincial parks and beaches, banned gatherings of more than five people and ordered anyone coming in from out-of-province to self-isolate for 14 days. Police can issue tickets of up to $1,000 to rule breakers.

Vancouver, too, has taken action. Its council voted Monday to fine individuals up to $1,000 for failing to comply with emergency measures designed to slow the spread of the virus. That means police could start ticketing people in parks.

But Ontario’s provincial government, which declared a state of emergency last week, officially still allows gatherings of up to 50 people, and it currently has no plans to use its powers to turn social distancing and self-isolation into legal requirements. As of Monday, you could be ticketed in Ontario for parking in a no-parking zone, but you face no sanction for getting off an airplane after returning from March Break and heading straight to a grocery store, or going to the park with a dozen friends for a game of soccer.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau criticized people who are ignoring the rules. “Enough is enough. Go home and stay home,” he said.

He also reiterated his government’s position that “nothing is off the table” in terms of enforcement, including the use of the federal Emergencies Act.

The question now is, should Ottawa declare a national emergency and enforce social distancing and self-isolation across the country? Should these moral duties be turned into legal obligations?

Mr. Trudeau has moved slowly on this. Invoking the Emergencies Act would override provincial and municipal authority, and that should never be done lightly. But the consequences of not doing so may be serious.

And in any case, there’s a national consensus on this issue. The country’s premiers and mayors are on the same page as Ottawa. Without a uniform message about what is allowed and what isn’t, combined with uniform enforcement, Canadians will continue to be confused about exactly what types of physical distancing they must engage in.

Why is it an offence to go to a park in one city and not in another? Why can people gather in groups of 50 in Ontario, and only five in Nova Scotia? And why would someone bother to stay indoors if they can look out the window and see a group of kids playing ball hockey, or their neighbours freshly back from Punta Cana unloading a van-load of groceries?

There is also the matter that provincial or municipal emergency declarations curtail the right of some Canadians to move about freely, while leaving other Canadians unrestricted. Using the power of the state to prevent people from gathering in groups, or from moving about in public while possibly being infected, is justified in this crisis, but it ought to be done uniformly.

The coronavirus outbreak is a crisis whose health and economic consequences will be felt by all, from coast to coast to coast. Social distancing measures are needed, and the more successful they are, the sooner they can be eased.

Every one of us must pull our weight. Barring a quick agreement among the provinces to enforce simple, standardized rules across Canada, Ottawa should declare a national emergency, and get the entire country pulling together.

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