Timing is everything. Are several of Canada’s provinces about to blow it by opening up too soon – getting the timing all wrong? It looks like it.
We hope to be proved wrong in the coming weeks and months; we would like nothing better. But the experience of the past pandemic year suggests otherwise.
Canada’s opponent is a virus with an exponential aspect. In response to it, many parts of the country were too quick to lift restrictions after the first wave, and too slow to react to the second wave. And the pandemic’s exponential qualities are now being considerably multiplied by the arrival of new virus variants, which are more easily transmissible than virus version 1.0.
The pandemic equation is being rewritten by the variants, and not in Canada’s favour. In other words, while the public-health measures, business shutdown and lockdowns imposed across the country are having an effect – cases are down sharply – most of Canada is very far from out of the woods. This isn’t the third period, this isn’t the fourth quarter – use whatever sports analogy you want, but the country is not near enough to the end of the pandemic road.
In the race between vaccines and the variants, the former are in short supply, even as the latter are showing up in ever more people and places. The miracle weapon for stopping the pandemic is behind schedule, even as the virus mutates in ways that accelerate its spread.
That means any news of victory over COVID-19 is premature. Yet on Monday, three big provinces started scaling back restrictions, and opening back up. The timing feels badly off.
In Alberta, in-person restaurant dining is back. Infection numbers have been falling in the province, so groups of up to six are allowed to dine in.
In Quebec on Monday, hair and beauty salons, shopping centres and non-essential stores reopened. Montreal’s director of public health, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said in a news release that, “we must stay vigilant, especially with the potential arrival of variants that spread more easily and until we can protect the most vulnerable populations through vaccination.” But Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante celebrated the pending return of non-essential businesses by tweeting that, “every step you take can help support businesses that are reopening.” As an encouragement, her city is offering free downtown parking.
Also on Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford put forward a plan to start lifting the provincewide lockdown. Three regions in Eastern Ontario will see the stay-at-home order removed on Wednesday; most of the rest of the province, except for three regions in the Greater Toronto Area, will end the measure next week. Ontario will begin moving, region by region, into its old colour-coded framework of lesser restrictions, which will see stores, services and sit-down restaurants gradually reopening to various degrees.
Yet Dr. David Williams, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, said that, “this is not a reopening or a ‘return to normal.’” It was a confusing message. And Health Minister Christine Elliott stressed that, should anything go wrong, “we have developed an emergency brake system giving us the flexibility to contain community spread quickly in a specific region.” That emergency brake? A reintroduction of the very restrictions the government is starting to remove.
The problem with this approach is it risks being overwhelmed by events – the classic “too little, too late” problem that has marked Canada’s pandemic response.
The virus has a long incubation period, which means infections aren’t seen until long after they have happened. As such, any tap on the brakes in response to rising case numbers will be days or weeks delayed. At the same time, the return of kids to in-person classroom learning, happening in much of Ontario, threatens to create new vectors for infection. And the quiet multiplication of more infectious variants means that each individual case will, all else equal, spawn a greater number of new cases.
Given that vaccination rates are low and likely to remain so for some time, even as the virus is becoming more virulent, the logical move should be to enhance methods for slowing the virus – not give it opportunities to speed up, and get ahead of the vaccination campaign.
As such, Monday feels as if it is the prelude to the latest chapter in an ongoing tragedy, and not the first act of a long-awaited comedy.
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