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In early April, we had about 100 active cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba, and the city was a ghost town. Today, we have more than 350 active cases and Kenaston Boulevard is a traffic jam. What gives?
The push to open in the economy in Manitoba and elsewhere in spite of "upticks" in COVID-19 cases reflects the belief that a tradeoff exists between health and economics. According to this view, you can have health or you can have wealth, but not both — and right now many are seeming to say, "we choose wealth."
But is the choice that simple? And do we need to lockdown again?
Like most, I would be deeply relieved if an effective vaccine rescued humanity, but until that happens, many argue that the precautionary principle must apply. Quite simply, when we face complete uncertainty, it is better to be safe than sorry. Given the recent rise in Manitoba cases, for some it seems obvious: we should we apply the brakes hard, buy bags of beans and hunker down searching Netflix for diversions missed.
But this thinking has a problem.
The precautionary principle can paralyze problem-solving and stall progress in the face of known and knowable risks. COVID-19 is a new game, but the environment of total uncertainty that existed in April is changing with new insights emerging every day. We can and we should develop a more calculated cost/benefit approach to the current surge.
Consider some of the costs of COVID-19. A common metric for tracking the cost of this pandemic is the number of deaths. Economists use the value of a statistical life to estimate the return on investments in transportation safety and disease mitigation. The Treasury Board of Canada requires that studies analyzing measures to save lives place a value on a life of about $10 million.
Canada, with its 9,124 deaths from COVID-19 (as of Aug. 24) has lost $91 billion in the value of lives lost. Manitoba’s 12 deaths have triggered a loss of $120 million.
According to Statistics Canada, the gross domestic product for Canada (GDP) declined by $289 billion between January 2020 and May 2020. Applying a simplistic proportion to Manitoba, this translates to a contraction of $8.8 billion in our provincial economy. GDP also excludes the many intangible costs associated with stunted schooling and mental health costs, so the true long-term economic costs are much higher.
The benefits from increased public-health spending is limiting, possibly reversing these economic losses. Specifically, if we wish to keep the economy even minimally alive, we must invest substantially more in public health. This means many more frequent tests matched by contact tracing, increased candid information about outbreaks and their management, and doubling down on cheap preventive measures.
Testing remains a challenge for all jurisdictions, Manitoba performs about 1,500 tests a day, still far off the stated goal of 3,000. But like all jurisdictions, the rollout of a rapid test has been slow. To complicate things, only two Winnipeg labs can perform the tests on the collected nasal swabs. This means that samples gathered in Brandon require transport to Winnipeg.
The province needs to increase and disperse lab capacity to rapidly test samples by repurposing idle university labs and even creating temporary testing capacity outside Winnipeg.
More frequent rapid testing also supports more effective and rapid contact tracing, provided government allocates sufficient resources to hire these telephone sleuths. The telemarketing industry that routinely adapts to a wide range of client needs could easily execute this task.
When the current surge started a couple of weeks ago, some at the fringe of my bubble interpreted the statement that "cases are in rural areas or on a Hutterite colony" as meaning those in Winnipeg were safe. I was unaware the Perimeter Highway was a barrier to COVID-19. Clear and complete communication is essential, specifically identifying the locale of outbreaks, their probable origin, and communicating how government is managing the specific outbreak.
Anything less encourages the suspicion that politics is driving science. Fortunately, the provincial government has finally committed to providing a more detail.
One of the more damaging messages still offered by public-health experts everywhere is the widespread caution about the second wave later in the fall. That message may have encouraged some to increase partying now, before things shut down again. Worse, it suggests that COVID-19 waves are seasonal.
This is not the case. Our behaviour has triggered this current surge, and without a proper response the second wave will have arrived three months early.
Finally, now that masks are in plentiful supply, mandating their use is a no-brainer, since it seems to be one of the more cost-effective methods to control the spread of COVID-19. The most important benefit of a mask mandate may be that it communicates we are all in this together — a visible sign of the social contract.
The public-health spending required to limit economic losses seems reasonable when compared to the benefits of mitigating the staggering economic costs of COVID-19.
Gregory Mason is an associate professor of economics at the University of Manitoba.
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