Editorial: As complacency spreads, so does COVID-19

What’s been happening in Northern Manitoba lately, with COViD-19 case counts growing while those in the other parts of the province shrink, to the point that the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) reported higher numbers of new cases than Winnipeg several times last week, despite the regions's population being less than 10 per cent of the capital city’s, is, sadly, rather predictable.

The same thing happened to the province as a whole as summer turned to fall. Because case numbers had been so low over the summer in most of the province, people reverted to old habits. They spent time eating together in restaurants and shopping and hanging out at the beach. They assumed Manitoba had somehow beaten the virus and let their guard down, reasoning that getting together at Thanksgiving wouldn’t be a problem. And then the case numbers started to grow. And they continued to do so into November, when some days saw more than 500 new cases of COVID-19. And they remained high until strict public health orders managed to slowly force them back down over the course of a couple of months.

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Here in the north, a single confirmed case of the virus was a big news event throughout the summer and into the fall. When a family of seven people in York Landing all got the virus, the community went into lockdown and some people started to take the threat more seriously, while others outright panicked but still others continued life as they had. Now. less than a month after Christmas, thanks at least in part to people deciding to gather over the holidays, fewer than 50 cases a day for the region seems pretty good and we have had more cases overall than the Prairie Mountain and Interlake-Eastern health regions. Around half of active cases in the province are in the north. This probably could have been avoided but it’s hard for people to take a threat they can’t see seriously until it starts affecting the people around them. By that point, it’s too late to reverse the trajectory quickly. As deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said last week, the number of cases will probably rise for awhile before it starts to fall.

Apart from people getting sick and some of them dying, failing to keep transmission under control will have other consequences too. It seems likely that, come Jan. 22 when current public health orders expire, Northern Manitoba won’t see much or probably any change, even as other health regions may see their rules relaxed a little. We still won’t be able to go eat in restaurants or shop for non-essentials in person or go ice skating or play hockey indoors or go to the gym or go bowling or even play VLTs. It even seems likely that the current restrictions could continue for another month in the north, much to the chagrin of business owners, particularly those who aren’t allowed  to have customers in their premises at all. And as much as we all don’t want that, it could be even worse. In Lynn Lake, where the virus has affected about a quarter of the town’s residents, a curfew is now in effect until the end of the month. Staying at home most of the time is bad enough, but not being able to leave after 8 p.m. is even worse.

There are plenty of things to criticize about how the provincial government has handled this pandemic, but they didn’t go around infecting people with the virus. The truth, in the north as well as in the rest of the province, was that we did it to ourselves because we wanted to feel normal at Thanksgiving or Christmas, or to spend time hanging out with our friends. Those are all natural, understandable impulses, but viruses exploit those impulses. The more we give in to them, the longer it’s going to take to get back to even somewhat normal. Many of us thought 2020 was a terrible year, and it was. But 2021 could be much the same, with the added bonus being that we’re already sick of the routine, thanks to months of it last year.

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