Opinion » Eco Logic

Staying the course

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During daily walks around Whistler this past week, I was again disheartened by what I saw and experienced. When it comes to the few persistent Covidiots in our midst, most days are disappointing, but weekends by far the worst: groups picnicking, partying and fishing in closed parks; folks on the Valley Trail not heeding RMOW guidelines for no groups, and for people travelling in opposite directions to pass each other in single file on the far side of the trail; runners and cyclists slaloming around walkers as if it were the good ol' days of physical non-distancing; out-of-town mountain bike posses cruising up Stonebridge looking for stealth places to park; sports cars and pickups racing on the West Side Road; and everywhere off-leash dogs-the owners chasing after them causing dangerous close-quarters havoc.

Aside from these unbelievably selfish actions reeking of a bizarre entitlement (or abject stupidity), it is worrisome to many of us that they are increasing, and that our reasonable (not great) performance as a province has people slacking off on key behaviours as they eye a return to their past lives. Many don't seem to realize that getting to a flattened curve in the daily infection rate is only Phase 1, that holding it is Phase 2, and that lowering it-the one that needs to happen before any restrictions are removed-is Phase 3. With continuing outbreaks, as B.C.'s heroically calm public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has taken pains to say, we are not yet at Phase 3.

People everywhere are understandably itching to get back to their lives, but that itch is still a dangerous one to scratch. Inasmuch as the popular euphemism about modelling-"all models are wrong, but some are useful"-is doubtless correct, there isn't a single one, based on either the most optimistic or most pessimistic criteria, that shows reopening society now to not also come with the terrible cost of another surge of COVID-19 cases. If you think the current public health crisis in the U.S. is bad, wait until a few key states prematurely open their economies. It's hard to imagine the drive to do so when so many prohibitive examples exist.

On northern Japan's island of Hokkaido, for instance, an early outbreak of the virus had been well-contained for six weeks when a three-week state of emergency was lifted on March 18. But as schools reopened and restaurants filled, it didn't take long for a second wave of COVID-19 to hit, enough for the island's governor to impose a second state of emergency on April 12, which remains. The city-state of Singapore also offers clear demonstration of how dropping the containment ball and not remaining hyper-vigilant of economic sectors with weak biosecurity measures can lead to dangerous outbreaks. After literally no change in the small number of daily cases from mid-February to mid-March, the virus appeared in the large migrant worker population of about 300,000 living in crowded dormitories on the edge of the city; before anything could be done, the outbreak infected several thousand, taking off in mid-April. With 15,000 cases, Singapore, once a model of containment, now has the second largest outbreak in southeast Asia behind China.

In Quebec, Ontario and indeed British Columbia, we have seen the results of similar exposure of sequestered vulnerable populations in acute- and long-term-care facilities. This has highlighted the failings of the systems governing these (e.g., private for-profit ownership, shortage of care workers who must move between facilities). In B.C. and Alberta, we have also seen the lightning rapidity with which the virus moves in construction camps and industrial settings like meat-processing plants. The reality of such inevitable flare-ups is why Canada's approach to re-opening will be a rational mix of national strategizing and made-in-province road-maps-more emphasis on the map, or plan, and less on the timetable. That means national guidelines and modifications for the realities of provinces and their regions. Ontario's COVID-19 reopening plan, for instance, was recently tabled with heavy caveats: it won't be linear, it won't be soon, and some events like concerts won't be back for a long, long time.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last month showed that SARS-CoV-2 was detectable in air for up to three hours, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel-key reasons for frequent hand-washing, cleaning surfaces, physical distancing, and face coverings.

But you can bet the people selfishly sitting at picnic benches in Alpha Lake Park aren't cleaning the table when they leave. If we can't even stick to simple rules at this point, it's hard to imagine we'll be up for the types of persistent restrictions necessary to open things up again.