We’ve missed the chance to avoid a second lockdown. Here’s how to avoid a third

OPINION: Ontario is heading into a new, even harsher lockdown. A new plan from medical experts across the country could keep us from needing another one this summer
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 08, 2021
People line up for COVID-19 tests outside an assessment centre in Toronto on December 26, 2020. (Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Press)



We aren’t going to vaccinate our way out of the current crisis. The wave of COVID-19 infections that is, right now, overwhelming our hospitals and causing mass death in the long-term-care system (again) was baked into the system weeks ago. A vaccine is totally insufficient to put a stop to the current levels of misery — we’d need a time machine instead. The war of words over the last 10 or so days between the provincial premiers and the federal government over whose responsibility it is to get more needles in more arms has all been a waste of time and breath.

We lost control of the second wave, and now a second lockdown is coming — a real lockdown, not the knockoff lockdown we got in December. Premier Doug Ford signalled on Friday that newer, harsher public-health measures are coming and that new modelling will be released early next week to ensure the public understands the severity of the current moment and why new actions are needed.

The choices the government makes now will help decide whether this is the final lockdown for Ontario, or whether a third one will be necessary later this year.

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“We’re not calling for a lockdown — the lockdown is going to happen,” says Robert Greenhill, a former federal deputy minister and executive chair at Global Canada, a national non-governmental organization devoted to supporting Canadian international engagement and development.. “We’re saying, do one lockdown so that you don’t need to do two lockdowns.”

He, along with numerous co-authors from across Canada, in December released “Building the Canadian Shield,” an alternative model to Ontario’s failed COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

The plan starts with the kind of hard lockdown that numerous other jurisdictions have had to use in the second wave — and that Ontario is likely planning to adopt now. To be effective, it may need to be as severe as the kind used in Melbourne, Australia, in terms of the number of activities restricted. But while the Melbourne lockdown lasted months, the Canadian Shield plan expressly calls for it to end in four to six weeks, at which point it would be replaced by reinforced public-health, economic, and social supports, such as increased contact tracing and supported-housing options for people who need to isolate.

Greenhill says that, in such places as Ontario and Quebec, we’d need to see new daily COVID-19 cases go down by 75 per cent before the lockdown could end.

Once the pandemic was under control, the government would need to maintain substantial public-health measures and supports until we hit near-zero levels, even as the harshest measures were relaxed. The plan calls for the goal of fewer than one new case per million people daily, or fewer than 15 new cases across all of Ontario in a day — less than 1 per cent of our current rate.

(Observant readers will note that nothing in the proposal is novel or radical; it’s just the same measures that public-health experts have been calling for all fall and winter. To which this writer can only say, you are correct.)

“You need to shift it from the vicious cycle we’re in right now, where everything’s out of control, people are losing hope, politicians are becoming increasingly reactive, and the virus just spreads exponentially,” Greenhill says. “We need a virtuous circle, where your systems are working, cases are going down, people can see it’s working so they double down on their own efforts, and politicians have a new sense of determination. But first you need to get on top of the virus.”

Although the lockdown is considerably shorter in the Canadian Shield model than in Melbourne’s, it’s projected to achieve roughly the same health outcomes (saving approximately the same number of lives), while letting people resume something close to their normal lives again sooner. It would also come with much lower economic costs than Canada’s current mitigation strategy, which is projected to result in 23 per cent greater loss to GDP ($37.7 billion).

“If you have that discipline, you can have more economic benefits and lower social and economic costs than the Melbourne model,” says Greenhill. “It’s the sweet spot if we can do it.”

But the first thing governments needs to do — and not just in Ontario — is psychological, not political: they need to acknowledge that the attempt to keep COVID-19 to manageable levels failed because it’s the wrong strategy, not because it was executed imperfectly. With that in mind, they will very likely need to keep some public-health measures in place for far longer than they did after the first wave. Bars and restaurants, for example, may need to be told they can’t reopen for in-person dining until the summer,  and they will need to be financially supported during that time.

“It’s the ultimate marshmallow test for our political leadership,” Greenhill says — a test of whether leaders can delay gratification long enough to reap the larger rewards to come.

Because this isn’t just about getting the second wave under control anymore. If we reopen again too soon — if we fail the marshmallow test again — we could find ourselves having to lock down a third time later in the spring. Absent some major change to the current schedule, the broad mass of the general public isn’t expected to be able to start receiving vaccines until the summer.

And that’s before we start considering the danger of the more infectious variants of COVID-19 that are already out there in other parts of the world. Maybe Canada will get lucky and avoid an outbreak of those variants, but hope isn’t a plan.

One of the most fundamental lessons I took away from the experience of the United States misadventure in Iraq is this: whatever governments tell themselves, it is never actually possible to do the wrong thing well. There was a reasonable debate over the summer of 2020 about whether Ontario could or should aim for total suppression of the pandemic, as the Atlantic provinces did, but that debate has been answered by the evidence. Mitigation was the wrong call. Suppression — via either the Canadian Shield plan or something equally rigorous — is the only sensible option going forward.

Either that, or you can forget about making travel plans for Canada Day.

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