As coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to spike across Canada, some provinces and territories have turned to drastic measures to slow the spread: lockdowns.
On Wednesday, Nunavut went into a territory-wide lockdown for two weeks in order to get COVID-19 cases under control. This means all schools and non-essential businesses are closed and gatherings are restricted to five people.
Last week, Manitoba, a province that has the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita, went into code red restrictions. The government closed restaurants, bars, gyms and non-essential retail stores and social gatherings are not permitted. However, schools and daycares are still open.
Although coronavirus cases in Manitoba and Nunavut are high, other provinces, like British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, are also dealing with surging numbers.
For example, on Tuesday, B.C. had its highest single-day totals for new cases and deaths and its largest number of hospitalizations.
“Lockdowns work, no question about it. The proof is in Melbourne. They were able to bring down the coronavirus numbers with painfully strict lockdowns,” said Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist with Ryerson University’s school of public health.
He said we will have to “wait and see” if the strict measures in Manitoba and Nunavut work. But if everyone complies, the numbers “would have to go down,” he said.
Although Sly applauded the two provinces’ efforts to help battle the virus, he said other regions should have implemented severe restrictions like these several weeks ago.
“We have let it go on far too long without strict restrictions. Partial restrictions just prolong the agony,” he said.
He added that two weeks is probably not enough to curb the virus, but a “28-day lockdown” period is an effective means to bring down the numbers.
“You can have 14 days of letting people who are infected recover, and then one more incubation period of 14 days to get the virus out and make sure it isn’t lurking around,” he said.
So if lockdowns help curb coronavirus infections, why aren’t other provinces following suit?
What Ontario and Quebec are doing
Ontario is one of the worst-hit provinces in Canada and Premier Doug Ford has not implemented a lockdown. However, last week Ford warned that the most recent modelling shows the province is “staring down the barrel of another lockdown” and said he will not hesitate to make further changes if needed.
On Wednesday, he reiterated his threat of a lockdown at a media conference.
“We are at a critical stage … be prepared on Friday then you can look at each other and say ‘why are we at this position?’” Ford said.
The strictest rules are in the Toronto area (level red). Under these restrictions, indoor dining is not allowed and restaurants and pubs have to close at 10 p.m., no more than 10 people are allowed inside gyms, and indoor social gatherings are limited to 10 people.
Health experts have criticized Ford’s approach to the pandemic and are pushing for a more aggressive strategy that would see more restrictions for a longer period of time.
Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease expert with Sinai Health, previously told Global News that the province’s colour-coded assessment system is not enough to stamp out COVID-19 because Ontario eases restrictions as soon as the case numbers drop, which only allows them to jump right back up.
Instead, he recommended using a strategy that is like “ripping off a Band-Aid.” This is using one single lockdown with stringent measures implemented until the number of coronavirus cases in Ontario hits zero. This is also referred to as the #COVIDZero strategy.
“(Ontario is) pursuing a strategy that’s absolutely demonstrated to fail,” Morris said. “It inevitably leads us to nothing close to zero (cases) … and then we’ll ease restrictions and it’ll bounce back up again.”
Global News reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Health, who said in an email, “the government took immediate action to respond to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, by lowering the thresholds for each level in its COVID-19 response framework. These necessary updates will help limit the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining health system capacity, protecting the province’s most vulnerable, and avoiding broader lockdowns.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health and other public health experts continue to closely monitor the evolving situation to advise if and when public health measures need to be adjusted.”
Quebec is the worst-hit province in Canada. On Wednesday, the province reported 1,179 new cases and 35 additional deaths linked to the virus.
Montreal and Quebec City have the strictest rules under “red alert.”
In these cities, gyms, museums, bars and dining rooms are shut down and most gatherings are banned until Nov. 23. However, places of worship and event venues for private and public gatherings (weddings) are limited to 25 people. Businesses like hair salons, malls and clothing stores are allowed to remain open.
Consequences of lockdowns
Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto, said Nunavut’s lockdown is not very comparable to the rest of Canada as the population is so low. So a two-week lockdown (or a “circuit-breaker”) is doable when you have such a small population and are able to quickly lower the number of coronavirus cases.
However, in provinces like Manitoba, he argued, the virus is “embedded” in society, and like a wildfire, it is difficult to put out.
“Lockdowns work and protect lives, but Manitoba isn’t going to eradicate COVID-19 this way,” he said. “So politicians have to be incredibly careful about the politics involved with lockdowns. Because if you begin to have social restrictions, that can erode public trust.”
How COVID-19 is impacting mental health
He said the politics of the first wave of the pandemic in the spring are far different than the second wave. This is because people are COVID-19 “fatigued” and many believe the restrictions don’t work anymore.
“People are starting to unravel. So a lockdown restricting social gatherings may cause more harm,” he said. “And of course, there are the economic impacts — if you don’t allow the economy to function, you rip away people’s livelihoods.”
He said premiers like Ford may be trying to “balance this” as “politicians want to keep people as happy as possible in order to be re-elected.”
Saskatchewan, another province seeing an upward tick in coronavirus numbers, has initiated a month-long “slowdown” instead of a “circuit-breaker” lockdown.
When asked about why the province was not going into a month-long lockdown, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said on Tuesday that the consequences of a circuit-breaker lockdown could be “quite severe” in regard to job losses.
“We had a lockdown earlier this year in Saskatchewan due to the numbers we had,” he said. “We are now into our second wave and our numbers have increased. But we lost 70,000 jobs in this province when we locked down the first time. If we were to lock down the economy again, there are estimates we would lose tens of thousands of jobs here in the province.”
What about lockdowns in other countries?
Amid skyrocketing coronavirus numbers, Great Britain announced on Nov. 5, that the country would be going into a four-week lockdown.
The British government has closed pubs, restaurants and stores selling items deemed to be non-essential until at least Dec. 2. Unlike the spring lockdown, schools and universities, as well as construction sites and factories, remain open.
Last week, data showed that the spread of the virus in England appeared to be slowing down.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has voiced hope that the lockdown will bring the reproduction rate of the virus below one, which would mean the epidemic is shrinking. On Friday, local health officials said the rate had dropped to between 1.0 and 1.2 across the U.K.
Australia was able to tackle its high coronavirus case number with an extreme lockdown in its second-biggest city over the summer.
Melbourne, home to five million people, went into a lockdown in July after the city became the epicentre of the country’s second coronavirus wave with daily cases rising above 700 in August.
At the end of October, after 111 days of strict stay-at-home orders, Melbourne ended its lockdown after no new daily cases or deaths were recorded.
Sly argued that Melbourne’s lockdown method may be extreme, but it worked. He said that if Canadian politicians were to give a “specific period” to a lockdown, like the one in Nunavut, it may be more bearable for people.
“If you tell people it’s only for a limited time, and say, ‘I know it’s going to hurt but grit your teeth for four weeks and we may be able to get past the worst of this,’ then that could be an effective tool to bring down the numbers,” he said.
— With files from Global News’ Kamil Karamali and The Associated Press
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