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Opinion: If Alberta can be rat-free for 60 years, we can be COVID-free

Calgary Herald logo Calgary Herald 2021-02-08 Calgary Herald
a man that is standing in the snow: We all could be back doing regular things if we had aimed for COVID-zero, say writers. © Provided by Calgary Herald We all could be back doing regular things if we had aimed for COVID-zero, say writers.

The irony is both the restriction-relaxers and us COVID-zero proponents seek the same thing: freedom. But at the end of the COVID-zero path lies safety and longstanding freedom, whereas, on the other path, freedom will be fleeting, and will certainly result in an ongoing roller-coaster of restrictions. 

We’ve seen the best way of managing the pandemic from the very beginning across the Far East. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore all have used the concept of the Hammer and the Dance. Hit the virus hard with extensive deep lengthy restrictions and powerful border protections, allow your systems to become more robust (better contact tracing, better transmission mitigation strategies), then reopen everything: stores, bars, concerts, movie theatres. And when that pesky virus peeks its head up again, hit it hard, but locally. Get rid of it entirely. Then reopen again. 

It’s important to acknowledge that those countries that aimed for COVID-zero also had on average substantially better economies than others.

Initially, the thought was we couldn’t do it here because, as a liberal democracy, we couldn’t emulate the strict measures of such countries as South Korea. But then Iceland did it. Then New Zealand. Then Australia. Of course, it could be argued, those are all islands. But then we did it in our own backyard: Atlantic Canada and the northern territories.

There’s no doubt it would be difficult. Landlocked with 11 major roads coming in, two international airports (well, now, one). And tight economic ties with our neighbouring provinces and states. But, difficult is far from impossible. In a province that has prided itself on remaining rat-free for 60 years, with a concerted effort surely we could create the conditions for a COVID-zero province. 

Tantalizingly close is the promise of COVID control with vaccines. However, a light at the end of the tunnel doesn’t mean we’re yet in the light. Ten months into the pandemic, we have at least another eight to go before we successfully hit the target of everyone who wants a vaccine getting one. So eight more months of riding the restriction roller-coaster, if we continue on our current path. 

And, in a cruel plot twist, the variants have arrived. Both the South African and U.K. variants threaten any progress with substantially higher transmissibility (and possibly mortality). This means that the current (and now further relaxed) COVID restrictions, which have successfully kept the virus at bay since Dec. 7, would, when applied to the new variants, allow for exponential growth. Again. So if we let them take hold, we’ll require yet another period of even stricter measures to protect ourselves.

We’ve been at this level of restrictions for eight weeks. Modelling shows that if we strengthen our restrictions for another seven weeks, we’ll effectively achieve COVID-zero in the province. And then we dance. Keeping up stringent border restrictions, keeping an eye out for any sign of recurrence, and stamping it out when it recurs. While we dine, dance and visit friends. 

One further consideration. The pandemic, and the restrictions, have been cruellest to those who can least afford it, and many have been placed at risk — whether it’s domestic violence, serious mental health challenges or being unable to afford to call in sick. Racialized communities, those who are already financially insecure, and those whose small businesses are struggling with ineffective “partial openings” need to be considered and supported. Through whatever is about to come, be it a #COVIDzero strategy, or the roller-coaster, we need to support the people and businesses that need help to make it through to the end, with government funds and mental health support. 

In 1972, Stanford psychologists did an experiment with toddlers to determine their ability to postpone gratification. They were offered an immediate reward of a single marshmallow, but, if they were able to wait 10 minutes, they’d get two. Those who were able to wait for the second, when followed over the course of their life, were shown to have better life outcomes, on a multiplicity of measures. 

This is our policymakers’ (and Albertans’) marshmallow test. If we can hold off, we get the ultimate reward: freedom. With a good dose of safety, security and happiness mixed in. 

Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency physician in Calgar y;   Dr. Malgorzata (Gosia) Gasperowicz is a developmental biologist in Calgary; Dr. Christine Gibson is a family doctor in Calgary with a background in health equity and community narratives.

This column was updated by the authors on Monday, Feb. 8.


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