BY IAN PATTISON

It is said that history will be the judge of how governments handled the great coronavirus pandemic of 2020. We shouldn’t wait for history. We should examine this now, as it’s happening, to steer clear of further pitfalls.

We like certainty. But we can’t be certain of much beyond the fact that this will get worse before it gets better. Are we ready? By most accounts, barely, and perhaps not. The next two weeks are said to be crucial. “We know a surge is coming,” said Premier Rob Ford on Wednesday. How bad will it get? Ontario predicts 80,000 cases and 1,600 deaths by month’s end.

How long will it last? Government leaders are reluctant to say. They don’t like to be proven wrong and they don’t want to cause unnecessary panic. But Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, said earlier this week that Canadians will be in it “for the long haul. It’s not going to be days and weeks, it’s definitely months, many months.” Is there a possibility of a second wave? “Who knows?” he said.

The reason they can’t say much with any certainty is that they don’t know how long most Canadians will continue to do what they’re told. Some may get bored and take chances outside as it warms up. If physical distancing and cleanliness have been widely practised, we might begin to see the curve become less steep after two weeks. But there are too many reports of people ignoring the rules. We’re told by authorities not to shame them; instead we face the possibility of enforced community lockdowns.

Hundreds of thousands of returning snowbirds and March Break vacationers are sure to be bringing more of the virus into our communities. That’s where the three initial cases in Thunder Bay and one in Nipigon originated. Many snowbirds spend winters in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis this week finally issued a stay-at-home advisory -- but ruled that beaches are an essential service!

DeSantis takes his lead from President Donald Trump who surely will face history’s harshest justice when this is all over. A wilful liar who can’t accept bad news or admit to mistakes is a dangerous liability to Canadians, 80 per cent of whom live next to the U.S. border. Trump’s blunt stupidity surfaced again Thursday as he ordered 3M to stop shipping N95 masks to Canada and elsewhere. 3M had to point out to him that doing so could result in retaliatory trade measures that would actually reduce U.S. supplies.

Trump’s biggest crime came when he picked apart his country’s virus defences. One year ago almost to the day, the Top White House official in charge of pandemic response was abruptly fired and his team at the National Security Council disbanded. Timothy Ziemer then tweeted in response: “When the next pandemic occurs (and make no mistake, it will) and the federal government is unable to respond in a co-ordinated and effective fashion to protect the lives of U.S. citizens and others, this decision by John Bolton and Donald Trump will be why.”

Trump is not alone in failure. Canada sent approximately 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China -- that makes this stuff -- at the beginning of February to help “protect the health and safety of people around the world.” Nice, but it left this country short.

But, wrote Chris Selley in the National Post, “Here’s the real scandal: We have spent the better part of two decades congratulating ourselves about how much we learned from SARS-Cov-1, which killed 38 people in Ontario (44 nationally) in 2003.” The Canadian Encyclopedia adds: “It also exposed the country’s ill-prepared health-care system.” It seems we didn’t learn much.

As hospitals pleaded for supplies, Canada this week finally awarded contracts for ventilators, masks and test kits -- a month after a global pandemic was declared. As Health Minister and city MP Patty Hajdu frankly acknowledged in an interview Thursday, governments don’t like to spend money on what-if scenarios.

We are told not to wear masks and you have to think that part of the reasoning is that widespread public use will mean fewer masks for health care workers. In the past two days, however, authorities are wavering on their mask advice as reality sinks in and people look for protection.

The situation is most acute here in Ontario which has more COVID-19 cases than every province except Quebec and lags behind all provinces in per-capita testing. Do you think a multi-million-dollar cut to Public Health Ontario in the 2019 budget had anything to do with it?

In Thunder Bay District 500 tests have been conducted (as of April 5) with 13 positive, 430 negative and two resolved. That leaves 58 people waiting, wondering, worrying about backlogged tests with a turnaround time of three to five days. Most confirmed cases in the city as of Friday are thought to be the result of community spread. There are additional highly presumptive cases in the regional hospital’s intensive care unit. One confirmed case, admitted earlier, was released Friday.

On March 25, Dr. Stewart Kennedy, head of Regional’s response effort, said the hospital had been approved for on-site testing that will take just hours to complete. There is still no sign of that happening. Equipment had to be ordered from the U.S. where states are literally out-bidding each other for the same kits.

On Wednesday Kennedy said the hospital has approached a second American company for in-house testing equipment that won’t arrive until mid-April at the earliest. Meanwhile, the hospital has cleared out patients to St. Joseph’s Care Group, putting its own capacity at below 60 per cent, lowest in years, in anticipation of the viral surge that is expected to begin any day now.

Room at the hospital is only one bit of good news around this crisis. Parking is free there now.

Of the 317,000 tests in Canada, 93 per cent have been negative. And most infected people are able to recover at home.

The demand for pulp to make masks, gowns and wipes is soaring which means Resolute and other Northwest mills are busier than ever. That’s good for local economies but most local businesses are now closed. If you can find a way to support them, please do.

Please stay at home except when absolutely necessary and then, stay apart.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs. 

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