August 4, 2020

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A most unwelcome visitor has arrived

Editorial

It was, as most health authorities warned, a question of when, not if.

Well, "when" is now. Manitoba’s first presumptive case of COVID-19 was confirmed on Thursday, with provincial Health Minister Cameron Friesen and chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin offering scant details but nonetheless driving home the reality that the novel coronavirus pandemic is no longer just a theoretical construct for Manitobans. Later Thursday, two more cases were confirmed.

News of this province’s first presumptive COVID-19 case — a woman in her 40s who had recently travelled to the Philippines — put an intensely local cap on a chaotic 24-hour period in which coronavirus-related developments unfolded at a dizzying pace. Early Wednesday, the World Health Organization formally declared the viral outbreak to be a global pandemic, not long after political leadership in Italy essentially cast the entire nation into quarantine.

"We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear."

Health Minister Cameron Friesen says testing for COVID-19 has been ramped up from 40 per day to 500. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Health Minister Cameron Friesen says testing for COVID-19 has been ramped up from 40 per day to 500. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Wednesday evening, a visibly shaken U.S. President Donald Trump addressed his nation, insisting that "The virus will not have a chance against us; no nation is more prepared or more resilient than the United States," and then banning travel from 26 European countries for the next 30 days.

Meanwhile, while the Winnipeg Jets were on the ice in Edmonton, the National Basketball Association cancelled a game after it was revealed that a player had tested positive for COVID-19; shortly thereafter, the NBA announced its entire schedule is suspended until further notice.

After meeting early Thursday to consider the NBA’s decision, the National Hockey League followed suit by suspending its regular-season play.

Theatre marquees on Broadway have gone dark. Canada’s Juno Awards have been cancelled.

Also Wednesday evening, actor Tom Hanks announced via social media from Australia that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, tested positive for the virus and will be "observed and isolated for as long as public health and safety requires."

Swivel chairs surround a table in the Ottawa meeting room where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was set to attend the First Ministers' Meeting before it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press)

Swivel chairs surround a table in the Ottawa meeting room where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was set to attend the First Ministers' Meeting before it was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press)

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put himself into isolation after his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, who had just returned from the United Kingdom, experienced flu-like symptoms on Wednesday night. The PM said he will remain self-isolated at least until the result of Ms. Gregoire Trudeau’s coronavirus test is known.

As "A day in the life" stories go, COVID-19 had quite a 24-hour span.

By the time this editorial is published, the situation will no doubt have evolved significantly. Early Thursday, confirmed cases worldwide were approaching 130,000; Canada’s count had exceeded 140. All of which prompts the question all Manitobans would like their elected representatives to answer: what now?

We’re about to find out what the Pallister government meant when it stated this province is ready to face the challenges of a pandemic. According to Mr. Friesen, testing for COVID-19 has been ramped up from 40 per day to 500; what remains to be seen is whether Winnipeg’s overburdened emergency rooms can accommodate an influx of coronavirus patients if those tests start to show positive results in significant numbers.

Beyond the institutional response, the focus on individual responsibility is intensified exponentially by the confirmed presence of COVID-19 among us. Wash your hands, often, thoroughly, and again. Observe proper cough-and-sneeze protocols. Embrace (from afar) the new notion of "social distancing." Ignore social-media charlatans and seek advice from reputable health-authority sources. If you’re sick, stay home.

The alarm bell has indeed been rung, loud and clear. Manitobans would be well advised to heed its warning and conduct themselves accordingly.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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