BY IAN PATTISON
Talk about mixed feelings! Anxious, even desperate for a return to something approaching normalcy, we are nonetheless apprehensive about governments’ preparations to re-open our society. We want out of our cocoons but we’re fearful of what’s there. With good reason. It seems that for every bit of good news, there are drawbacks if not failures. Are we flying by the seats of our pants or do we know what we’re doing? This doesn’t feel like the start of the recovery we are all anticipating.
Ontario this week announced a phased plan to open things up. It was anything but a plan -- more like a vague aspiration that might or might not occur based on what ails us might or might not do sometime within two weeks, or three, or four.
We can’t blame government for being cautious; we should applaud it. We can, however, wonder what it’s thinking when it signals the beginning of the end of our frustration without a hope, yet, of testing enough people to gain some certainty about the state of our infection.
The mental leap alone will be difficult. Having been told repeatedly, earnestly to stay home, we’re now being told to prepare to leave home and shop. There is fear of that and it will be hard to get over. This is all brand new. As Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne wrote Wednesday, “We are six weeks into the most extraordinary experiment in behavioural modification ever attempted.”
Ontario is finally testing over 14,000 people a day. The plan was to be at 19,000 daily tests by now. There are 14.7 million people in Ontario which lags most of the country and much of the world in testing. There’s been a slight dip in the rate of infection but death rates are setting daily records.
Many people are saying that Premier Doug Ford has earned new respect for his calm, measured approach as opposed to his crassness before the pandemic. Let’s not forget his 2019 cuts to public health agencies that now are not able to meet the testing rates that he is demanding.
We’re missing cases and failing to measure the true spread of the virus. Never mind the need for widespread tracing of every human contact anyone who tests positive has had in the previous two weeks. We’re testing selectively which is not the prerequisite we need to recover economically.
Sensing growing unease mixed with frustration after six weeks of isolation in our homes, governments across Canada, the United States and much of the world concluded simultaneously this week that the time was right to put jumper cables to the national batteries. But every jurisdiction is at a different place on the curve so ignition will occur at different times.
Governments need to be careful not to signal more progress than exists before its time. The differences can be confusing. Ontario, with the second-highest number of cases, says that garden centres and lawn care can open partially Monday but not schools. Quebec has the highest caseload and is actively preparing to re-open some schools. Manitoba has among the lowest case rates but will not open schools until at least the fall while authorizing a variety of businesses to open Monday.
This mish-mash of approaches is confusing. They’ve all got the same goal but getting there is different in every case. We need some hard truths but our leaders prefer repeating the need for physical distancing and self-isolation, and endlessly congratulating us for it, but failing to admit that this merely stalls the virus.
Exposure is thought to be far higher than known numbers. Those infected are a small fraction of the number needed to achieve so-called herd immunity which is reached when enough of the population is immune that the virus cannot find new people to infect.
Meanwhile, for all we know this new virus is shape-shifting while we await a vaccine that’s not expected at least until the fall, when a second wave is said to be unavoidable. (Prediction: The anti-vaxers will resist this one more than ever.)
For every report of successful treatment there are more about unexpected developments that surprise doctors. New symptoms arise while hospitals change treatments as they prove to be ineffective if not harmful. Witness the use of ventilators which turned out to cause unintended medical consequences in some cases.
Scientists worldwide are racing to find treatments and a vaccine but summer is coming a lot faster than those efforts will produce results. Monotony and frustration are bound to tug at people’s good sense and cause some to test the limits that have been set for them, and which most have been so good at respecting. Decks and docks, balconies, boats and beers are beckoning -- activities that involve social interaction, not separation. Will we be able to keep our distance or will longing for those hugs with loved ones prove too tempting?
While there is some evidence that the coronavirus won’t do well in sunlight, there is no way that it will die out over the next few months. It’s relentless, highly contagious, and throwing curves at medical research all the time. Which is to say that Summer 2020 is going to be far from normal.
Thunder Bay and the Northwestern health unit districts have so far been spared the worst of the onslaught. Our numbers relative to population are low, perhaps because of our isolation, but also perhaps because we’ve been so diligent at obeying the rules. In and around the city there are just 18 active cases and, unfortunately, one death. Of particular concern are six cases on the Gull Bay First Nation. In the Northwestern Health Unit area there are as many resolved cases as positive tests -- just 16.
Will we stay smart enough to keep things under control as our great outdoors beckon all of us at once? Or will the lack of sufficient testing and tracing catch up with us and reveal what’s been under the radar and building this way for months?
We’ve gotten good at being careful. Let’s not blow it now.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.