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Keep Manitoba's pandemic numbers in perspective


In these early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Manitoba’s burden of the disease has been lighter than that inflicted on provinces east and west of us. This corresponds to experience in the United States, where most mid-continent states have been less affected than the great coastal cities.

On the weekend, Manitoba was reporting a cumulative total of 72 cases. This stood in stark contrast to Alberta’s 661 cases, British Columbia’s 884, Ontario’s 1,355 and Quebec’s 2,840 cases. Even allowing for Manitoba’s smaller population, the prevalence of the disease here seemed, at this early phase of its spread, to trail significantly behind the national curve.

Chris Young / The Canadian Press</p><p>A traveller stands in the international arrivals hall at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.</p>

Chris Young / The Canadian Press

A traveller stands in the international arrivals hall at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

Fine calculations from these gross totals are of doubtful value because no one knows, for any province, how many people had a mild case that they never noticed or never mentioned to anyone. There may be people who are unknowingly carrying or spreading the virus; their numbers in any province may be great or small.

The best available data, however, are those reported by each provincial health department. In the national rankings, Manitoba’s small numbers are hard to ignore.

Returning travellers have been an important vehicle for spread of the disease in all provinces. Since airports in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver receive huge overseas traffic in normal times — and they continued receiving huge traffic until travel was sharply curtailed — it stands to reason that those provinces would bear the brunt of the epidemic in its early months.

Manitoba’s early good fortune does not, however, tell us much about what we should expect in the coming months. The figures from Italy and Spain at mid-March suggested that Italy was far worse off, but now, two weeks later, the two countries are about equally afflicted. People move and the virus moves with them.

There is a temptation to think that people here do not have to follow rules made for worse-afflicted communities in Quebec and Ontario. That temptation has to be resisted. The purpose of the rules about physical distancing and hand-washing is to slow the spread of the virus and minimize the crowds of people turning up at hospitals in need of intensive care. The virus is present all over Canada, including Manitoba, and its spread needs to be slowed here as much as anywhere.

Manitobans, like people everywhere, should settle in for a long season of struggle against COVID-19. Even U.S. President Donald Trump, the fiercely determined optimist, has admitted that this epidemic will still be with us through the month of April. The three-month cycle of the virus in China’s Hubei province suggests North Americans may still be living with it in May and June. Manitobans will not be out of grave danger until the epidemic subsides all across the continent.

The happiest Manitobans in this season of pestilence will be those who treat the occasion as an opportunity — an opportunity to connect with long-lost friends, to clear clutter out of the basement, to master computer skills, to read books that were set aside years ago, to write a song. Those who chafe against the restraints of social and physical distancing will set themselves up for daily disappointment.

Those who derive a smug sense of satisfaction from comparing Manitoba’s COVID-19 performance with other provinces should keep it to themselves. The shoe might soon be on the other foot.

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

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