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Earlier this month, Manitoba became the first province to significantly loosen its COVID-19 restrictions. As of May 4, non-essential retail stores could reopen, customers could sit on restaurant patios, and people could get haircuts. This was a significant and important step in restoring our freedoms.
Interestingly, many critics expressed concern that Manitoba was reopening much too soon. Some businesses that could reopen chose to remain closed while others implemented distancing requirements, such as not accepting cash from customers, that went far beyond anything recommended by the province.
On April 30, CBC asked Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson for her reaction to the province’s reopening strategy. Jackson suggested that lifting the restrictions risked, "undoing the progress we have made in containing the virus." She also made a rather bold prediction.
"Case numbers are likely to grow as a result of relaxed social distancing measures, and that is likely to result in more patients in our hospitals and ICU’s," stated Jackson. So far, Jackson’s doomsday prediction has been proven wrong—not by a little, but by a lot.
On May 4, Manitoba had five COVID-19 patients in the hospital. Today, we have one. In other words, Manitoba’s COVID-19 curve is flatter than a pancake. Had the province listened to the naysayers and kept everything closed for another month, our COVID-19 numbers wouldn’t be any lower than they are right now.
We should be thrilled with these low numbers. The whole point of these restrictions was to flatten the curve so that our hospitals don’t become overwhelmed with critically ill patients. However, physical distancing measures can slow the spread of the virus, but they will not stop everyone from getting sick. And yet, some people seem to think we should all just stay home until a vaccine is developed. That is ridiculous.
Let’s be clear. Most experts say it will be at least a year, and probably much longer, before a vaccine becomes available. In the meantime, we need to accept that this virus is going to be around for quite a while.
This means we need to start resuming our normal lives. It is time for us to go back to our workplaces, to shop in stores, to take our kids to the playground, and to visit the library. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is still telling Canadians to stay home, the Manitoba government has wisely replaced its "stay home" message with a "stay safe" reminder.
Stay safe is a much better message than stay home because it recognizes that there is no need for everyone to remain home right now. Manitobans can decide for themselves what is safe and what is not. Obviously, what staying safe looks like in practice will vary depending on everyone’s personal health status and family situation. If you need to shelter at home for a longer period of time, that is fine. Just don’t assume that everyone else needs to make the same choice as you. Life must resume, whether scientists discover a COVID-19 vaccine or not.
It’s important to recognize that staying safe does not mean zero risk. Everything we do in life involves at least some level of risk. Rather, staying safe means keeping risk at a manageable level. In the context of COVID-19, it means ensuring that our hospitals are not overrun with too many serious cases at the same time.
Based on the evidence, it is reasonable to say that the risk from COVID-19 is manageable right now. That is why the province must continue to loosen restrictions.
In the end, it is possible to be safe and to accept a reasonable level of risk at the same time.
Michael Zwaagstra is a high school teacher and a Steinbach city councillor. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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