For months, Canada was (somewhat) heralded for its swift and sweeping pandemic response: lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were triggered right away; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced relatively generous financial aid for people out of work, students, and businesses; and the U.S.-Canada border was shut to all non-essential travel. Canada even secured the largest vaccine portfolio in the world, purchasing enough doses to vaccinate each citizen five times over.
But now, Canadians are currently in the thick of a worsening and deadly third wave, with the country surpassing more than a million total COVID-19 cases this week and its largest provinces reporting thousands of new cases every day—a reality made worse by the fact that new infections are far outpacing Canada’s slow, fragmented, and confusing vaccine rollout. Even the U.S., a country that has recorded the most COVID-19-related deaths in the world with more than 554,000, has issued the highest warning against all travel to Canada.
Nearly two-thirds of all new cases are caused by more contagious and at times deadlier mutant variants, even sending young people who were once less likely to suffer severe illness to ICUs. According to Health Canada, there are more than 16,000 variant COVID-19 cases across the country, with the B.1.1.7 U.K. variant making up the bulk, and the P.1 variant, linked to a traveller from Brazil, worryingly making its way east after first being discovered in British Columbia. Experts are baffled how Canadian political leaders have seemingly ignored the most obvious public health advice all year: paid time off. Instead, they’ve introduced confusing and often lax lockdowns, and have failed to send vaccines to where they’re needed most.
“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Greater Toronto Area palliative care physician Dr. Amit Arya.
Regional responses have varied, ranging from symbolic to “illogical,” and are so all over the place that people are struggling to keep up. “The reason we got here is, of course, there is mixed messaging; people are confused about lockdowns and what they're supposed to do,” Arya said.
In B.C., officials implemented a three-week “circuit-break” lockdown by shutting down indoor dining and placing firm restrictions on gyms and religious worship. Next door, Alberta introduced a lockdown on Tuesday after its cases jumped by 27 percent in a single week. Meanwhile, some areas in Quebec, the original pandemic epicentre, have been under strict curfew since January. The province’s third wave is behind others, particularly in Montreal, but COVID-19 spikes in other municipalities led to Premier François Legault reintroducing broad restrictions on Tuesday.
Ontario implemented a limited 28-day lockdown last week, but Arya doesn’t understand how it’s supposed to work. Following criticisms and appeals from top doctors, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is also expected to issue a four-week stay-at-home order on Wednesday.
“Places of worship are open. Big box stores and malls are open. But outdoor activities like sitting on a patio, where there is much less risk, are closed,” Arya said. “It’s contrary to logic and this doesn't get into root causes.”
The root causes being unequal access to health care and poor working conditions for thousands of essential workers.
“We knew communities that were bearing the brunt of the virus and were disproportionately impacted, yet we did not develop strategies to mitigate and support them,” said Ontario-based palliative care physician and health care equity advocate Dr. Naheed Dosani.
In Toronto, racialized people made up 83 percent of all COVID-19 cases, with several COVID-19 outbreaks affecting long-term care facilities, factories (including a major Amazon warehouse outbreak), manufacturing sites, farms staffed by migrant workers, and food plants. Those same sites rarely offer paid time off, which would allow sick people to isolate. That’s why governments need to step in and implement guaranteed paid sick days, but so far, that’s not happening.
“I have no idea why when all the doctors, scientists, mayors, everybody is saying you need this,” Arya said. It seems more like ideological opposition or political will, rather than listening to science.”
University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, also a proponent of paid sick days, said politics has influenced how governments all over respond to COVID-19 spikes. “They’re focusing on the economy and taking the assumption that lockdowns are damaging rather than helpful,” Saxinger said.
Stifling COVID creates a “net economic advantage, but that message doesn’t percolate,” she added. “The communication around that has been hard to work through.”
It’s also hard for governments to make quick decisions about COVID-19 because the virus keeps changing, Saxinger said, but in some cases, including Alberta right now, it’s possible measures have been put in too little, too late.
According to Dosani, many provinces didn’t use stringent enough lockdowns and public health measures at the start to stamp out the virus.
“In many jurisdictions, we didn't see the kind of public health interventions, such as lockdowns, that would have curbed the spread,” Dosani said. “In other places, (like Canada’s Atlantic provinces) we saw a ‘COVID Zero’ strategy work.”
Provinces on Canada’s East Coast created their own bubble when the pandemic first hit, for example, and limited domestic travel, even requiring fellow Canadians to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. As of Wednesday, there were relatively few active COVID-19 cases in the region.
Today, encouraging people to avoid indoor dining, shopping, and yoga classes will only go so far anyway because people are “tired,” said Dr. Katrina Plamondon, University of British Columbia Okanagan’s nursing school professor and global health specialist.
“We should try and limit exposures and follow public health advice to the best of our ability, but after this long, it's hard to ask people to continue to do more,” Plamondon said, adding that people are fatigued and struggling with mental health tolls of the pandemic.
Instead, Plamondon reiterated the need to help those who are most at-risk. “I have students who have jobs as servers at restaurants and they have told me they feel pressured to go to work even if they have had known exposure; they're worried of losing their jobs,” Plamondon said.
“We’ve been asking for (paid leave) literally since the beginning—I’m certain I was ranting about this in April last year,” she said. In fact, every single expert who spoke with VICE World News said provinces need to push for better working conditions for essential workers immediately to better protect people from the ongoing and worsening pandemic.
The vaccine rollout—Canada’s glimmer of hope—is also failing because leaders aren’t rushing to address inequities.
“Data I have seen says 64 percent of frontline workers who were surveyed were worried about losing pay to go get the COVID-19 vaccine,” Arya said. “Paid sick days could improve vaccine uptake by up to 30 percent.”
VICE World News previously reported how Ontario’s vaccine rollout specifically has failed, resulting in hard hit areas, many of which are lower-income and home to essential workers, receiving too few doses. And on Tuesday, Ford urged essential workers to be “proactive” and get vaccinated, all while refusing to give those same workers paid time off so they can follow his advice.
According to Dosani, vaccine supply needs to be reallocated, so that pandemic hotspots are vaccinated first. Leaning on innovative solutions, including mobile vaccine clinics that drive vaccines out to people, could rapidly increase vaccination rates and tackle the virus where it’s spreading most.
“Is it that people aren’t getting the vaccine or is it that people aren't getting the support they need to get vaccinated?” Dosani said.
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