Canada now has over 400 confirmed cases of Covid-19. The vast majority of them brought into the country by travellers. Ontario – Canada's most populous province – has the most. British Columbia, where we live, reports a total of 103 as of 16 March. Four deaths from the virus have occurred in Canada to date, all of them residents with underlying health issues at one Vancouver care home.
The exponential spread of the virus is relatively easy to follow even in this vast country, which stretches 4,600 miles from east to west, and almost 2,900 miles south to north. The last week reads like this: 9 March: 69 cases; 11 March: 102 cases; 16 March: 406.
All gatherings of more than a few people were cancelled more than a week ago – professional sports and entertainment events, conferences and now university classes. Schools are into their two-week spring break, and that has been extended for at least an additional two weeks, and likely longer. Canada's Parliament and British Columbia's Provincial Legislature have been suspended. Most people who can, have been working from home since the beginning of March.
Ferry services here have been reduced, partly because a lot of people are not straying far from home, but largely because most people are eschewing public transport and other places where they come into contact with groups of people. There have been calls from civic and provincial politicians to prohibit ferry services entirely between coastal British Columbia and the United States.
Some of BC's First Nations have chosen to self-isolate as communities. Haida Gwaii lies about a hundred miles off the coast of northern British Columbia. The Haida have asked all their people to remain on the islands, and mainlanders to stay away. They are doing this, they say, to protect their Elders – the keepers of their stories and history, including the histories of diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu which so devastated them in the past. These things, they say, remain fresh in their memories.
The main concern of people in western Canada is our proximity to the main US outbreak in Seattle – a city an American friend calls 'the epicentre of Covid 19'. The situation to the south of us is indeed serious. The Washington State Department of Health alone reports a much higher number of confirmed cases than all of Canada.
Canadians have been advised to return as soon as possible from their travels to any other country. As Justin Trudeau said on Monday to Canadians: 'If you're abroad, it's time for you to come home'. This advice is particularly important to the people we call 'snowbirds' – the thousands of Canadians who spend the winter months in Florida and other southern states. Many of them are elderly and in the target demographic for the most serious effects from the coronavirus – and who, if they were to take ill in the US, could face potentially crippling medical costs. Many of these travellers will be subjected to testing when they return, but whether they're tested or not they will be told to sequester themselves in residential quarantine for at least two weeks.
Outside our house, Victoria's harbour is eerily quiet. Few floatplanes are landing at the foot of the street. The sun is shining and the apple blossoms are out. Across the Straits, the Olympic Mountains rise thousands of feet above Port Angeles. People are strolling along the beautiful harbour walkway, but they're not stopping to talk or even to deliver a passing 'good morning' as they normally do. This is a change, a kind of voluntary social self-isolation that will help and yet inevitably hurt the old, and the homeless.
Because the coronavirus can have serious respiratory implications, we took the precaution several weeks ago of getting the pneumonia shot at our local pharmacy. There was no charge for it. We also bought a couple of boxes of disposable vinyl gloves and a good supply of soap. The soap, we were told, is particularly important, and not just for reasons of basic hygiene. The weakest link in the components of this virus it seems, is the fatty layer on our skin. Soap dissolves this and inactivates the virus. Soap is even better than a hand sanitiser it appears, and in any case hand sanitisers are virtually unattainable now – except... there are recipes online for making up your own.
After media photographs appeared of Toronto, Montreal and Seattle-area supermarket shelves completely empty of toilet paper, our public health people told us the virus does not cause diarrhoea. Nonetheless, I picked up a package of Purex at the Country Grocer yesterday. When I accidentally dropped it on the floor, a passing customer laughed and said: 'Quick! Pick it up before you get swarmed'. There was plenty of humour and banter in the supermarket, in contrast to some of the bad behaviour we have seen elsewhere. We expect the positive vibe to last. Canadians, wherever they've originated from, are pretty good in a crisis.
Health is a joint Federal-Provincial responsibility in Canada. The Federal Government handles the more strategic aspects of the crisis – such as the response to international travel, support and potential relief for people and companies put in financial difficulties because of illness or forced sequestration, and so on. Despite being initially a little slow to respond, the Feds have caught up quickly, and appear to be more responsive and enlightened in their actions than many of the other governments we read about in the international media.
Justin Trudeau announced on Monday that Canada's borders will be closed from 18 March to travellers who are not Canadian citizens – except for diplomats, crew members and US citizens. No-one with symptoms will be allowed to board a plane that's heading for Canada. From Wednesday, all international flights will be routed to one of four Canadian airports – Toronto (Pearson), Montreal (Trudeau), Calgary or Vancouver – where passengers will be assessed and probably tested. Domestic flights will not be affected, although with 'domestic', Trudeau included the United States, Mexico, Caribbean countries and St Pierre et Miquelon.
British Columbia's Provincial Public Health system – which my epidemiologist brother-in-law tells me was somewhat eroded during the tenure of a previous government – is responding well. While the leaders tackle issues of prevention and general control, it is the front line workers who hold the key to effective diagnosis and treatment. Physicians are reducing face-to-face appointments in favour of telephone consultations. Pharmacists can now refill prescriptions without an additional doctor's note in order to save time and free doctors to treat Covid-19 cases.
The BC Government is in the process of establishing special clinics to test for Covid-19 in order to stop individuals from going to hospital Emergency for testing. Elective surgeries have been cancelled so that acute care personnel and cleaning staff can be redeployed to deal with Covid-19 emergencies. The BC Minister of Health, however, was clearly unhappy with the Federal Government's refusal to close the border to travelling Americans, particularly because of the dire situation in Washington State. Right after Trudeau's message, he issued a strong statement asking Americans not to travel to British Columbia.
From the Minister on down, British Columbia's response has been fast, sensible, forthright and reassuring. Since the beginning of March, we've been given daily briefings by BC's (Chief) Provincial Health Officer, who is often accompanied by the Minister. Individually, or as a tag team, they impress with the sensible, compassionate, science-based information and advice they deliver. These updates include reminders of sound anti-coronavirus practices – hand washing, social distancing, voluntary isolation and more – and today, a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.
One of the advantages Canadians have is that, by and large, we trust our Governments – Federal and Provincial – to deal with facts rather than politics in times like this, and to enable science and professional personnel to guide decisions. The importance of that trust and its effect on the public frame of mind should not be underestimated. We seem still, for the most part, to adhere to an idea of the 'public good'. Once, such a belief would hardly be worth mentioning. Now, in its absence in some other countries, it is.