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Pandemic requires us to be more vigilant this fall

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This fall brings with it several serious threats to the health and welfare of Canadians.

The most obvious, of course, is the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the willingness of most of us to undergo prolonged isolation, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing, the severity of the plague has been curbed in Canada, amounting to fewer than 10,000 deaths so far. But the failure of even a relatively small minority to follow these preventive measures is enough to enable the virus to keep spreading and claim more victims. 

The worst offenders are those who defiantly refuse to wear masks -- because they believe they are personally invulnerable, because they consider such mandatory orders an infringement of their personal rights, or even because they still think the virus is a hoax. These disbelievers are much more rampant in the United States, of course, but Canada has quite a few marching in our streets as well. 

Most of them are fervent minions of the capitalist system, which elevates individual privilege over collective needs. This warped mindset provides the coronavirus with ideal conditions for proliferation.

Risk of contagion in the schools

The next immediate threat we face from the virus is the precipitate reopening of schools, which also exposes students, teachers and support staff -- and their families -- to contagion. Thankfully, many parents across the country have opted to confine their children to at-home tuition, but they don't have that choice in Quebec, where Premier François Legault has arbitrarily made school attendance mandatory.

In any case, even the most stringent protective measures are nearly impossible to maintain among children for whom close contact is irresistible. After months of enforced separation, their yearning to mingle and frolic with their friends will be overpowering. Teachers, too, will find it very difficult to remain aloof from the personal interaction they normally have with students, especially those with special needs.

In Ontario, teachers and their unions have been understandably critical of the Ford government's blatant disregard for the safety of teachers and other school staff.

One critic, Barbara Korwin, in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen, pointed out that Ford has treated other affected groups with much more consideration than he has given the teachers.

"Indoor gatherings are limited to a maximum of 50 with two-metre distancing," she noted. “Businesses must limit the number of their customers. Churches are limited to 30 percent capacity. So how is it that we can pack up to 30 students into one classroom with no physical distancing and imagine it will be safe? 

"Why is it that family doctors are practising telemedicine, yet teachers are expected to risk their lives to babysit the nation's children? The Ford government is gambling with the health of teachers, students, their families, and us all."

Menace from America

Living as we do just a border away from one of the world's most powerful nations, maintaining good relations has not always been easy. Since the election four years ago of a ruthless, ultra-conservative and certifiably mono-maniacal president, our proximity to the United States has become even more unsettling.

It's not just because Donald Trump treats Canada as an insignificant subordinate state that he can bully and impose tariffs on whenever he likes. It's the ever-increasing likelihood that he will mistreat Canada even worse if he wins re-election in November.

Most Canadians seem to be confident that won't happen -- that the election will surely be won by the Democrats' Joe Biden. But this is far from being a certainty. American writer and documentary producer Michael Moore claims, to the contrary, that Trump is actually on track to repeat his unexpected 2016 victory. 

Don't scoff at Moore. He was among the only prominent commentators who predicted Trump would win four years ago. Hillary Clinton supporters and most pundits jeered at Moore then, but they're not laughing now. Recent polls do put Biden as much as 10 points ahead of Trump, but so was Clinton on the eve of the last election. She grossed nearly three million more votes than Trump, but, because of the weird U.S. electoral college system, still lost.

This was mainly because Clinton didn't bother to campaign that much in key swing states, even failing to show up in Michigan. That cost her the votes she especially needed.

Moore believes Biden won't make the same strategic mistakes as Clinton, but fears that, unless anti-Trump voters turn out in much greater numbers than they did in 2016, the Trump plutocracy could be extended to 2024.

One of the results of such a calamity would likely be that many American progressives would be unable able to stand living there any longer, and would decide instead to migrate to Canada. Our border could be swamped by hordes of anti-Trump refugees, many of them Canadians who had moved to the U.S. earlier. And that stampede could start before Christmas.

It will be interesting to see whether our federal and provincial governments welcome or oppose this influx of refugees.

Of course, Moore could be wrong this time, and Biden could emerge the victor. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Flu plus COVID-19 

The imminent annual return of influenza, which will be concurrent with the ongoing plague of COVID-19, poses a major challenge for physicians, governments and citizens. Coping with one pandemic has been difficult enough. Coping with two simultaneously will be overwhelming.

The latest edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the levels of morbidity and mortality from the coronavirus are considerably higher than those of influenza.   

This is mainly because, though they have vastly different pathogens, they are both primarily transmitted by respiratory droplets:

"Thus, the adoption of nonpharmacologic interventions (NPIs), such as mandated face coverings in public, closure of schools and retail spaces, and restrictions on movement, would be expected to influence the incidence of both infections to varying degrees ... but as restrictions on movement relax, the transmission of both influenza and SARS-CoV-2 can be expected to increase."

JAMA attributes the explosive spread of the coronavirus in the United States to what it calls "an immunologically naïve population." That's a polite way of referring to that country's abysmal failure to take COVID-19 seriously and to delay essential preventive and protection measures.

Canada's political and economic leaders were also inexcusably late in responding to the coronavirus and especially in failing to protect its elderly citizens. To their credit, they have belatedly taken firm corrective action on several fronts, but, to their great discredit, their school reopening blunders are likely to expose many thousands more to a resurgence of the coronavirus.

In the midst of two pandemics and a school attendance debacle, our federal and provincial governments can at least keep mandating the continued wearing of face-masks.

As for self-distancing and frequent hand-washing, the vast majority of Canadians have voluntarily adopted these safeguards, which explains why the COVID-19 pandemic has been so much less devastating in Canada than in the much less actively protective United States. 

We Canadians, however, shouldn't be complacent about our anti-virus record. It falls well short of perfection, especially when it comes to the infection-spreading large mass gatherings that have been held across the country in defiance of government bans. A recent report in the National Post listed five of such big parties, three in Ontario and two in British Columbia, all of which risked spreading the virus. Crowded mask-free bars and beaches have also boosted virus transmissions.

These "renegades," however, can't all be condemned. The mass party providers should certainly be assessed large fines -- as most already have been -- but not those who have been confined to their homes for the past seven or eight months. Afflicted with grief and depression for so long and denied personal association with friends and relatives, the urge to escape confinement overcomes all inhibitions. To expect them meekly to keep enduring such strict separation throughout the fall and possibly well into next year is insensitive and unrealistic.

There are safe alternatives. Some people, for example, have managed to extend their contact with others by forming group "bubbles" in which virus-free cohorts can safely mingle, chat and even dine together. The development of such safe gatherings should be encouraged and assisted. It would certainly be preferable to the virtual incarceration to which many thousands of Canadians are being subjected. 

Taking a more optimistic -- but not unrealistic -- look at our collective future, it is now likely that an effective vaccine for COVID-19 will become available soon. Maybe as soon as the end of this year or early in 2021. With so many medical experts and scientists around the world striving to create such a vaccine, we have a good chance of restoring some aspects of normality before next Valentine's Day.

Maybe, if we're lucky, even before Christmas.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city's daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

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