My perspective - Once upon a time


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

Do you remember, back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when you could walk someone to their flight? Remember when you could go through security at an airport with nail clippers or a bottle of water? Remember when you could use a knife to eat once past airport security?

Security at airports had slowly been tightening since air travel became available to the masses, but one event fundamentally changed things– Sept. 11, 2001. There had been terrorist acts before then, but they always happened in some far off country, far from us. Until they didn’t.

Today’s situation feels eerily familiar.

Outbreaks of deadly diseases are nothing new and most of them have had Canadian victims. Despite this, we got complacent and we felt invincible. Like terrorism, it was something we thought couldn’t happen here. In reality, we had been lucky, facing diseases that were less prevalent, less contagious and/or less deadly than COVID-19.

It’s hard to know just how this pandemic will play out, but at this point, a few things are clear. The first is that ensuring the health care system can cope with the 20 per cent or so of infected people who will need care is essential. The second is that without a head start, aggressive measures to flatten the curve can only be achieved with huge disruptions. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

While we were complacent about previous disease outbreaks, other countries weren’t.

In 2002, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) came out of China. Of the 8,098 people worldwide who were infected, 774 people died. The vast majority of cases were concentrated in five locations, including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Many of those countries used that experience to develop plans to deal with future pandemics.

They implemented strategies such as aggressively identifying potentially infected individuals, including screening travellers and extensive testing; open sharing of information; and isolating and supporting the sick. Only those who are infected need to be isolated, but with limited ways of identifying who those people may be, most countries have had to lock down their entire populations. If infected people aren’t mixing with healthy people, life can go on as normal. This is how countries such as Taiwan, which was expected to have the second highest rate of COVID-19 infections, managed to have just 195 and two deaths and Singapore has just 509 infections and two deaths (as of Mar. 23).

The countries that learned the lessons of SARS are very open about where infected people have been, publicizing where those individuals were and when. This gives those who might have come into contact with them the opportunity to be tested, monitor themselves for symptoms or self-isolate. This is a sharp contrast to Canada, where we are informed of flights upon which infected individuals flew, but nothing more. In Manitoba, the only geographic information we are told about an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 is the health authority in which they live. This is of little help to residents of Winnipeg, let alone those in rural health authorities, which cover large areas. Knowledge about the infected person’s movements would be much more helpful to the general population looking to make decisions about how best to stay healthy than knowing the person’s gender or age.

Today, most of Canada is shut down as we attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. In Ontario, all non-essential businesses were closing as of mid-week. While not mandated in Manitoba, that’s effectively the case here as well. But it didn’t have to be that way– the fifth country that had a large outbreak of SARS cases was Canada, where a cluster of infections took place in Toronto.

Like terrorism, we ignored the signs and believed it couldn’t happen here. For that, we will pay a high price.