The trend worldwide to relax pandemic restrictions is universal and unmistakeable, except in Ottawa
Loyal Liberals stood on line this week to dispute renegade MP Joël Lightbound’s allegation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had “politicized” the pandemic for electoral gain. One could take issue with many of their responses, because of course Trudeau did exactly that. But Brampton North MP Ruby Sahota’s assessment of the situation was particularly striking — in particular her worry that “it’s not good timing.”
“We should be following the science and we should be listening to our public health advisors,” Sahota said.
Sage advice. Let’s take a little tour.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s chief public health officer, has for weeks been telegraphing a change in strategy from COVID prevention to managing the virus “much like how we manage … influenza, or RSV (a common respiratory virus), or enteroviruses that cause the common cold.” Various restrictions on gatherings and events are up for review in Victoria next week, and Henry has hinted they might not survive.
“I believe that after the Omicron wave has subsided, the risk of our system becoming overwhelmed will become substantially reduced and this will enable us to shift our response,” Henry’s counterpart in Alberta, Dr. Deena, Hinshaw, said last week. The shift got underway this week when Alberta’s provincial government ditched vaccine passports. It’s all part of a move “to eventually treat COVID-19 more like other infectious diseases,” Hinshaw explained.
At Queen’s Park, chief public health officer Dr. Kieran Moore is also talking down the effectiveness of vaccine passports. “The vaccine isn’t providing significant benefit at two doses against the risk of transmission, as compared to someone unvaccinated,” he said last week. “We have to reassess the value of the passports.” On Thursday he seemed to rule out adding a third-dose requirement.
“Yes, yes,” I can hear Liberals saying, “but these formerly esteemed physicians are now but marionettes to the whims of their insane non-Liberal overlords.”
OK, then. What about the rest of the world?
As Tristin Hopper noted in the National Post this week, many countries in Europe are roaring ahead of us: Spain, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Ireland. But all those countries fared far worse during the pandemic than Canada did. I have long argued that the countries whose performances we can and should measure ourselves against are Norway and Finland: prosperous, non-island nations that cannot reasonably cut themselves off from essential travel.
Norway’s performance remains particularly astonishing. At 276 COVID-19 reported deaths per million, it has been by far the least-impacted country in Europe. (Compare to neighbouring Sweden at 1,610, 2,332 in the U.K., and Canada at 922.) The last time Canada reported overall excess mortality, in October, there were 456 extra deaths per million from the beginning of the pandemic. At that point in Norway, there were 108 per million fewer!
And Norway has managed this with fewer overall restrictions on daily life than in most Canadian jurisdictions. Notably, according to Oxford University’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Norway required all schools to be closed for just 46 days. Canada’s rather different approach topped out at Ontario’s outrageous 384 days.
So it seems safe to say Norway knows a thing or two about pandemic management. And its restrictions are tumbling. Vaccinated tourists can now visit without so much as a rapid test, never mind a PCR. Self-isolation is only required for people who test positive. It has ditched all attendance restrictions at public events, along with an 11 p.m. last call for alcohol. Employers can require employees to work on site, rather than at home.
“We must expect the infection rate to rise as a result of the changes,” Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told Norwegians last week. “Despite this, it is our view that it is not proportionate to keep more invasive measures which impact on people and the business sector.”
“Society, in a short time, can return to normal everyday life without special infection control measures against COVID-19,” Dr. Camilla Stoltenberg, head of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health Institute, said this week.
Finland fared nearly as well as Norway, and without closing schools entirely even for a single day. It, too, is reopening on a deliberate and quick timetable — with an eye to all-but-total freedom by March 1, including the abandonment of vaccine passports. Early closing times and restrictions on public gatherings expire Feb. 14, social-democratic Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin announced last week, almost apologizing for the delay relative to neighbouring countries.
Outside of Europe, some pandemic stalwarts aren’t quite as enthusiastic about reopening. Taiwan is one of few countries that hasn’t explicitly abandoned the “COVID-zero” strategy — but its approach to Omicron has been far softer than for previous variants. In time for Lunar New Year, the city of Taipei is planning a variety of relaxed rules around capacity restrictions. “We shouldn’t be afraid of living with the virus,” epidemiologist Dr. Chen Chien-jen, a former vice-president of Taiwan, argued in a Facebook post. Western Australia recently reimplemented a 14-day hotel quarantine requirement. New Zealand isn’t planning to reopen fully to tourism until July.
But it is, at least, planning. The trend worldwide is universal and unmistakeable … except somehow, apparently, in Ottawa.
“What we need to do going forward, as we emerge out of this Omicron wave, is recognize this virus is not going to disappear,” Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said last week. “We need to be able to address the ongoing presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a more sustainable way.”
She does indeed bear listening to, just as Sahota suggested.
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