AS 2021 begins, many people in Manitoba are hopeful that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. The number of infections reported is falling. Effective vaccines have been approved and will eventually become widely available.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is far from over and the worst could still lie ahead. Manitoba, like most jurisdictions in Canada except the Atlantic provinces and Northern territories, is using a public-health strategy for responding to COVID-19 that hasn’t given us the protection and positive outcomes that we could have expected.
This strategy – one of mitigation, to use the epidemiological term — has aimed to keep the virus from spreading so much that sick people overwhelm the hospital system.
"Building the Canadian Shield: A New Strategy to Protect Canadians from COVID and from the Fight Against COVID," a new report from the COVID Strategic Choices Group — a task force made up of scientists, medical doctors, economists and top corporate figures — is clear: "The sad reality is that even the most aggressive or innovative tactics cannot save a failing strategy."
The report points out that a number of countries using mitigation strategies, including the UK, have found themselves forced into lockdowns for a third time.
The problem is that when the virus is still circulating in the population at a significant level and most people haven’t been vaccinated, the end of a lockdown will eventually lead to another wave of infections. We know all about that in Manitoba. Even though the number of infections was very low in the summer of 2020, reopening without appropriate preventative measures in place and extensive resources for rapid testing, contact tracing and supported isolation measures led later in the year to a rapidly rising wave.
Building the Canadian Shield’s statistical forecast is "that, without a fundamental change in strategy, Canada will likely experience a third wave this spring with a potential peak of over 9,000 cases per day."
Widespread vaccination by late 2021 may not protect us from a third wave this spring. As highlighted in the report and supported by many leading public-health experts, we suggest that a different strategy is needed to prevent the deaths, disabling long-term health effects, suffering, mass exhaustion of our essential and critical workers and financial hardship that will be inflicted by another wave.
Another reason to drastically curb the spread of the virus is that the more it circulates, the greater the chances that new variants will develop that are more deadly, resistant to vaccines or spread more easily, as the one in the U.K. that is currently the focus of much attention appears to do.
There are alternatives to the current "live with the virus" strategy. It’s possible to adopt a strategy of suppressing the virus. This has been done in a number of countries, including Australia. It involves using extensive lockdowns to drive the number of cases down to very low figures. At the same time, governments commit the resources required for widespread testing, contact tracing that really works and measures to support people isolating when they need to.
Only when there are very few infections and those programs are in place are restrictions relaxed. This is what a growing number of scientists and doctors, some connected to the #COVIDzero initiative, have been calling for. It’s what Building the Canadian Shield proposes. In Manitoba, Communities Not Cuts has launched a Suppress the Virus campaign, urging the government of Manitoba to adopt this path to protect our most vulnerable, our essential workers and everyone else.
It should be accompanied with generous social and economic supports to help people through the pandemic. These include a ban on evictions, rent relief, additional support for workers as requested by their unions and associations, and entrenching paid sick days in the Employment Standards Code.
We also need an approach to public health that is clear and transparent about what the goal is and what’s needed to achieve it — one that aims to mobilize organizations and individuals in a co-operative effort to control the pandemic and promote well-being.
Suppressing the virus won’t be easy. However, to stick with the current strategy is to invite more unnecessary deaths, harm and restrictions on gatherings over the course of 2021.
David Camfield is an associate professor of labour studies and sociology at the University of Manitoba. Claudyne Chevrier is a local activist and a graduate of the community health sciences department at the University of Manitoba.