That, more or less, is where Italy was three weeks or so ago, in the last week of February. Italy at that point had had 10 deaths, while Canada now has eight.
In late February, it would be fair to say that Italy was roughly as affected as Canada is now.
Does Italy’s trajectory offer a template for what we should expect in Canada? We should hope not, since their national death toll has now passed 2,500, and the country now has over 30,000 known infections.
Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University, points to differences between Canada and Italy: Italy’s much older population and the fact that Canada had had two or three weeks more warning.
“I would say it’s fuzzy, useful, but not exactly what we would necessarily expect in Canada,” he says.
“One of the biggest things about Italy is that it’s the second-oldest population in the world, only after Japan. Because this virus has such age-dependent consequences, that fact makes it a very different scenario.
“It’s probably not the best comparison to Canada.”
Being among the first Western countries to be affected by the coronavirus was unlucky for Italy, not just because it had less time to prepare, but also because the public had less time to fully understand the danger and accept very disruptive public health measures, he says. But at this point, Canada has more warning.
“Canadians have had an opportunity to see some bad situations outside of our country, and then might react differently once it gets worse here, knowing what has happened outside of our country.”
As well, differences in testing rates and practices make it hard to tell what any country’s true infection rate is, with the possible exception of South Korea,
Sealing off whole regions of Italy was a mistake, Hoffman argues. No government has the resources to enforce measures related to an epidemic purely through police power, and so it depends almost completely on public acceptance and voluntary co-operation.
Being sealed off from the rest of your own country, however, leads to a sense of being abandoned, which wastes precious goodwill.
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“When people are put in situations where they feel unsafe or undignified, they react in ways that are counterproductive to public health,” he says. “We heard all sorts of reports of people fleeing the north and going to the southern part of the country, which is the exact opposite of what the government wanted. That’s just human nature. I don’t think we should be blaming northern Italians – that’s just what happens when people are put in those sorts of situations.
“The most important thing for public health in an outbreak is to retain the public’s trust, because ultimately so much of the public response depends on people complying with public health guidance. If we don’t have trust, we’re unlikely to have compliance.”