We need to fight complacency on coronavirus

A man demonstrates how to put on a face mask and other protective clothing during a tour of a COVID-19 evaluation clinic in Montreal, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

At the onset of the outbreak, when it (falsely) seemed like the novel coronavirus was solely a problem for mainland China, regular people were very quick to make racist and xenophobic comments, and in some cases even partake in racist acts against Chinese Canadians.

But the real risk was never from China, or Iran, or any other country that your racist uncle hates. It was always America.

A health-care system that is the laughing stock of the rest of the developed world, coupled with the dystopian capitalist hellscape that is the current labour environment, nearly guarantees the contagion of any communicable disease.

If you’re uninsured, it’s very unlikely that you’re willing or able to pay thousands of dollars for testing. And anyone without access to paid sick leave, or the economic cushion to withstand going days without pay should they need to stay home when sick, is basically incentivized to keep going to work even when symptomatic (and, to be fair, this is certainly not just an American problem).

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Even at the best of times, without a sentient Cheeto in the White House, America’s approach to public health puts Canadians at risk. And these are not the best of times.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Trump hasn’t been tested for virus yet because he ‘feels great’'
Coronavirus outbreak: Trump hasn’t been tested for virus yet because he ‘feels great’

Let’s add in a few of the compounding factors that make all of this worse, exponentially increasing the risk to Canadians. America has been wildly under testing its population. According to recent numbers, the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario had both individually tested more people than the entirety of the United States, causing the virus to circulate undetected in American communities for weeks.

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In Washington state, for example, we know from genetic sequencing that the virus has been circulating there since January. And of the American testing that was getting done in the early days of the outbreak, many of them were faulty. There was also very little communication and co-ordination between local and state public health officials and the CDC. Oh, and the entire pandemic response team was fired in 2018 by the Trump administration.

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We have known about all of this for a while now, and yet Canadian public health authorities have remained largely silent about the threat posed to Canadians by our American neighbours. That doesn’t mean we have to shut down borders, or instill panic in people by fear-mongering. It means that public health officials should have been warning Canadians about exercising caution when travelling to the United States, and to monitor symptoms upon their return. Or at the very least, putting out a warning to the elderly and the immunocompromised about the risks posed to Canadians by America.

We don’t need to panic, but we shouldn’t be complacent dumb-dumbs about it, either.

March break is coming up, and a lot of people have travel planned. Everyone is entitled to make the appropriate decisions for their own families and undertake their own risk analysis. But people can only do that if our public health authorities are being bluntly honest with Canadians about the assessed risk our most frequented travel destination poses, along with our media providing accurate information.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Top health official outlines measures to prevent ‘rapid rise’ in cases'
Coronavirus outbreak: Top health official outlines measures to prevent ‘rapid rise’ in cases

Don’t get me wrong, Canada’s response to this public health issue has been laudable on many fronts. The information articulated by our public health officials, both federally and at the provincial level, has been stellar. Early testing and isolation have been excellent first steps at containing the rate of spread. But we need to start looking beyond this.

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Some politicians and some media have already screwed up the way we have responded to climate change. By falling into the trap of making climate change a partisan issue, we have created the current mess that we’re in. We cannot afford to do that with infectious disease outbreaks. Truthfully, we couldn’t afford to do that with climate change either, but the effects of disease outbreak will be felt a lot more acutely, and we should learn from the mistakes we made with climate change.

COVID-19 won’t be the last of it. And to be perfectly grim, in a lot of ways, we’ve lucked out with COVID-19 as our first real pandemic test in a globalized world. The virus is transmitted via droplets and is not airborne, so good hand hygiene still packs a good punch as a defence mechanism. The basic reproduction number of the virus, known as the R0 or the rate at which an infected person will spread the disease, is currently pegged at anywhere between two and three, and while that is certainly not nothing, it is nowhere close to a disease like measles, which is pegged at 12-18.

The current case fatality rate for COVID-19 is estimated to be anywhere from two to three per cent, which, while much higher than the regular influenza strains we see in Canada (the average influenza virus has a fatality rate of about 0.2 per cent, which still causes an average of 3,500 deaths a year in this country), is nowhere near the fatality rate of human cases of avian influenza, which can kill up to 60 per cent of the people who get it.

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Perhaps this global outbreak of a novel virus will be the wakeup call we collectively need to start listening to the experts instead of just to whoever is loudest, but it probably won’t be. And that poses an immediate threat to us all.

Supriya Dwivedi is co-host of The Morning Show on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

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