Reopening Canada while protecting public health

Natalie Kofler and Françoise Baylis remind us that everyone must be protected during this pandemic.

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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadians focused on the number of confirmed infections and reported deaths – initially watching these numbers rise and more recently, in most provinces and territories, recede.

With the recent downward shift in numbers has come a shift in interest away from how the virus is killing Canadians to how it’s killing the economy. For some Canadians, when one factors in spiraling personal debt, lost wages, lost jobs, failed businesses, delays in non-COVID-19 health care, as well as increased mental and physical health problems as a result of government imposed lockdowns, the “cure is worse than the cause”

Yet in parts of the country we continue to see an alarming number of cases in vulnerable populations. For example, in Nova Scotia, 88% percent of those who have died were residents of Northwood, a nursing home for seniors in Halifax. And, if we look at confirmed cases of COVID-19 instead of number of deaths, nearly all residents of Participation House in Markham Ontario – a long-term care facility for adults with development and physical disabilities – were infected with the virus. Over half of those incarcerated at the federal Mission Institute in British Columbia have tested positive for the virus. The Joliette Institute for Women near Montreal has more COVID-19 cases than any other federal penitentiary in Canada. And while it is more difficult to get numbers for racial and ethnic minority groups, we know that the virus is having a disproportionate impact on people of colour. The First Nation community in the La Loche area, Saskatchewan has been particularly hard hit.

Photo Credit: Frank Winkler. Image Description: Four flying seagulls in front of Canadian flag.

As the Canadian economy begins to reopen, it is imperative that the already marginalized not be placed at increased risk. Special attention must be given not only to the needs of persons working or living in long-term care facilities (such as elderly persons and people with disabilities), but also to the needs of those working or living in correctional facilities, addiction rehabilitation centers, emergency housing for the homeless or the victims of domestic violence, and so on. Minimizing the risk for these populations requires sufficient access to resources, including  adequate personnel, personal protective equipment, and test kits, as well as policies and practices to prevent the risk of an outbreak in these high-risk settings. These things must be in place before pandemic-related restrictions are lifted. 

Provisions for testing everyone (as happened in the La Loche area, and as promised for all nursing home residents in Ontario), treating all confirmed cases, and tracking the disease must also be urgently prioritized for at-risk communities so that safe socialization, exercise, and caretaking can resume. This is critically important if we are to avoid establishing new sources of community spread. At the same time, measures taken to protect public health must maintain human dignity. For example, restricting people to small residential rooms for months on end is both physically and mentally unsustainable. Forcing incarcerated people who await COVID-19 test results into extreme confinement for 23 hours a day is a human rights violation.

As Canadians, we have a collective responsibility to ensure the safety and health of everyone in our country. Solidarity and care are values our country lives and leads by. These values are critical for pandemic resiliency. As individuals, we have been called upon to briefly sacrifice our personal movements for the benefit of the most vulnerable among us.

As restrictions are gradually lifted, we need to remain focused on our obligation to protect everyone during this pandemic.

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Natalie Kofler is founder of Editing Nature and adviser for the Scientific Citizenship Initiative at Harvard Medical School. @NatalieKofler

Françoise Baylis is University Research Professor at Dalhousie University. @FrancoiseBaylis