Even the best case in the government’s coronavirus projections was still stark. The forecast of numbers infected and dying were still on a tragic scale. And the curve of the best scenario doesn’t trail off to its end point until somewhere near the end of summer.
Months. This was the news Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been trying to break to the nation gradually. On Thursday, he made it plainer. Despite his warnings it would be tough, and the hints that had been available in statistics and expert assessments, it still clanged.
There was a silver lining, in a sense: COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, took hold later in Canada than in several other countries, which allowed time for social distancing and other control measures to slow the transmission of the virus and for the health-care system to prepare for the peak of the outbreak.
But the Prime Minister is now talking about a “new normal.”
The peak of the epidemic may be in “late spring” and the end of the first wave some time in summer, he said.
He noted that Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, had just warned that social-distancing restrictions can’t be removed too soon after the peak, for fear of a renewed outbreak.
And some unspecified restrictions will stay in place for months after the “first wave” is over – perhaps for 18 months, Mr. Trudeau said, because a second or third wave is likely.
“This will be the new normal until a vaccine is developed,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Now he has told us that this is a longer shutdown than a lot of us were thinking. And that comes with a lot of critical implications for the country, and its governments.
One thing became overwhelmingly clear from those projections, as Dr. Tam ran through slides outlining projections for three scenarios: Loose restrictions are not an option.
Dr. Tam suggested Canada is on track for the “good” range, with a projection that deaths could number up to the tens of thousands, between 4,400 and 44,000. That’s still a far cry from worst-case scenario, probably averted, where 70 to 80 per cent of Canadians would become infected and more than 300,000 would have died.
But the middle case, with weak social distancing and controls, would mean both a high death toll of 200,000, and a miserably long duration of the first wave, into 2021.
Governments, then, must maintain tight restrictions for longer. Mr. Trudeau sought to redouble the collective will, and reassure. “This will work,” he said.
But there are a lot of implications to the new normal.
Provinces aren’t likely to open their schools in May or June. From Mr. Trudeau’s description, it sounds like they’ll have to think carefully about how they bring students back in September.
Those Canadian companies that were retooling to make mechanical ventilators, surgical gowns or N95 respirator masks don’t just have to get into production to avert shortages in two or three weeks. They also have to keep the country supplied through July and August, and to build up stockpiles for the second or third waves.
Ottawa’s big economic support measures, notably emergency benefits and wage subsidies, will have to be in place for six months or more.
That affects the cost, although the Parliamentary Budget Officer is already assuming the outbreak will last six months in its latest projection, which estimates the budget deficit for 2020-21 will now be $184.2-billion.
But six months of shutdown, followed by a gradual lifting of restrictions, means that some measures might have to be added or redesigned to fill gaps that can’t go unaddressed – and some might be in place beyond August.
Importantly, planning the gradual lifting of restrictions – whether by region or industry or risk factors – is now the second big priority behind coping with the immediate crisis.
Even Mr. Trudeau’s style of governing by press conference can’t go on, if this is the new normal.
He has to face the opposition, too, and soon – let’s note they have pushed some of the emergency measures the Liberals later accepted. But crisis democracy doesn’t need to be the four-times-a-week, in-person sessions demanded by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
If a “virtual” Parliament is ready to function in four weeks, Mr. Scheer will have to accept that for a while; politics will have a new normal, too.