As the evidence begins to show that the COVID-19 curve has flattened out nationally and across the provinces, there is a sense that we have turned a corner. Now governments are facing down what will probably be one of the toughest decisions of their terms in office: when and how to relax social distancing measures and re-open local economies.
This week, Canada’s First Ministers agreed upon a shared approach to restarting the economy, based on public health principles and guidelines. With the rhetoric stripped away, the approach amounts to a set of management criteria that should allow each government to gauge when the time is right to incrementally loosen restrictions. The First Ministers’ statement heavily emphasizes the importance of relying on good data – both in terms of having an accurate measure of the disease transmission, as well as the capacity of the public health system to test, trace, and isolate all cases.
With such stark disparities in the severity of the outbreak across the provinces, as well as within their own borders – there will be growing pressure within cabinets and governing caucuses to get things moving again. There’s an old adage that ‘the risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.’ But in this case, the prospect of making the wrong decision on opening a province back up, risking another significant wave, is a terrifying one for political leaders. Lives would be lost unnecessarily, and the economy would have to be put back on a complete hold.
In the last few days, Canada’s largest and most populous provinces, which also happen to have the most serious COVID-19 outbreaks, have made announcements on reopening plans. Premier Doug Ford seems to be erring on the side of caution, as Ontario’s much anticipated announcement stopped well short of setting any timelines or sectors to reopen right away. On the other hand, the Legault government in Quebec is embracing some risk, both in terms of timing and approach which would have most of the province fully open by May 25th. Their plan to reopen daycares and elementary schools as a first step is particularly controversial. They are the province with the highest number of cases, but will be the first to reopen schools. Among others, it’s clear that Montreal mayor Valérie Plante and public health director Mylène Drouin are uncomfortable with the decision of the provincial government. They commented yesterday that it remained unclear as to whether Montreal will have established conditions necessary for a successful de-confinement by the May 11th date set by Premier Legault.
Tough decisions lie ahead for our elected leaders and the public health officials and bureaucrats who advise them. Until such time as there is an effective and available vaccine or treatment, very tough decisions will need to be made by businesses and organizations – who will still have the responsibility of protecting their employees. Hopefully we’ll be able to do so with the best possible, not just the best available, data.