Advertisement

Coronavirus: Here’s where Canada is on the curve

Coronavirus outbreak: WHO director calls COVID-19 ‘defining global health crisis of our time’
WATCH: The World Health Organization's director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Monday that COVID-19 was the "defining global health crisis of our time" and that fighting it would be a test of trust in science and in solidarity.

As of Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET, Canada has 569 known cases of the novel coronavirus, or about 1.5 per 100,000.

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.

Theatres closed, school and university closures had happened but weren’t affecting the whole country, and people in the worst-hit regions were asked to go into voluntary isolation.

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

“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.”

Coronavirus: Alberta asks all travellers returning from Italy to self-isolate for 14 days
Coronavirus: Alberta asks all travellers returning from Italy to self-isolate for 14 days

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,

Story continues below advertisement

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.

“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.

Coronavirus outbreak: ‘Our civic sense is the only thing that can save us’ says Italy resident as entire country locks down
Coronavirus outbreak: ‘Our civic sense is the only thing that can save us’ says Italy resident as entire country locks down

“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.”