Once the White House’s coronavirus task force released its own model predicting that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from COVID-19, it was inevitable that there would be more questions about what Canada’s projections say.
If there’s one thing that social distancing and self-isolation have made common, it is wondering where all this is going. How bad will it be? How long will it last?
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau preferred not to talk much about models – he said there were a variety of scenarios and the real outcome will depend on Canadians’ behaviour. But on Thursday, he indicated projections will be released in the coming days.
The models won’t be definitive enough to really tell us what will happen, and they will come packed with caveats and conditions. But the questions about what they say were never going to go away.
A senior government official insisted there was never any debate inside the federal government about making the models public. But it has taken weeks to collect enough useful data from the provinces, including information on how people get sick, to work up a robust model.
Ottawa’s model is scheduled to be approved for release in a few days, the official said. The Globe and Mail is choosing not to identify the official because staff were not authorized to speak on the record about the process.
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said he would go first, and release his province’s projections on Friday.
In the relative terms of this crisis, it is a good thing these grim forecasts are going to be released. They won’t really provide a firm answer to all questions Canadians have. But giving the public a sense that they’re being told what the government knows about what’s happening, and what might happen, is critical.
The opposite – having the public think the government knows something it doesn’t – would be corrosive.
There have, of course, been worries that death toll projections might frighten people. Mr. Ford warned that “it’s going to be stark.” There is also concern that when things do improve, projections of further progress might lead people to drop their guard too soon, leading to a new rise in infections.
But models with best-case and worst-case projections will provide a graphic illustration of the importance of social distancing that Mr. Trudeau and premiers like Mr. Ford have been preaching.
It would be hard to keep such projections secret for long, anyway. Leaks of secret death forecasts would certainly damage public trust.
Canadians have already taken some stark projections in stride. On March 11 – eons ago in coronavirus time – Health Minister Patty Hajdu warned 30 to 70 per cent of Canadians could become infected.
Certainly, people are hungry for information now. Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s much-watched daily news conferences often include grim statistics of cases and deaths, but he has been praised for fatherly reassurance. He promises Quebeckers he will always tell them the truth about what’s going on.
Mr. Ford, in announcing that grim figures will be released, told Ontarians, “You deserve the truth.” There is something reassuring about that.
So bring on the projections – and the caveats. One is that Canadian governments don’t have a clear answer to the most common question: When will this end? Even the estimates government officials circulate to each other are just guesses.
The National Post reported this week on an immigration department document in which officials indicated that special coronavirus measures – it did not say which ones – would probably stay in effect until at least July.
That July 1 guesstimate is in the ballpark of when governments would start relaxing measures if the pandemic is already at or near its peak now. It will take time to be sure.
The number of cases of people being infected each day might already be declining as April begins, for all we know, but full statistics on that won’t be in for about two weeks. Health Canada reports numbers on infections by “episode date,” but also notes that figures from recent days are not yet complete.
After that, it would take four to six weeks to determine if the trend is firm. By then, when the government could consider lifting restrictions, it would be getting close to Canada Day.
Those kinds of moving timelines are admittedly hard for politicians to explain. So are the projections. But the questions are being asked now. The reassuring answer is that the truth won’t be hidden.