Editorial: Banning travel to the north looks good, but doesn’t make us much safer from COVID-19

Bringing back the ban on non-essential travel into Northern Manitoba, as announced by chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin at his regular Monday afternoon COVID-19 update Aug. 31, is a move made more because it looks good than because it will actually do much to prevent the importation of the novel coronavirus to the north from southern Manitoba.

As the number of cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba, particularly in the Prairie Mountain, Winnipeg and southern health regions, continued to climb for the past six weeks after literally dropping to zero daily new cases for most of the first half of July, it has become common to see people advocating for a new travel ban (the previous ban began April 16 and ended June 26) on social media saying something to the effect that the provincial government should block the roads. Except, of course, they never did. Any roadblocks that were on Highway 6, one of the main routes from Winnipeg to Manitoba’s north, were erected by Misipawistik Cree Nation, which has the right to monitor or prevent visitors to its territory, but not to prevent people heading for points further north from passing through and continuing on their way. The northern travel ban, which includes a large number of exemptions, has always been ore of a paper tiger than a public health order with any real teeth, though Thompson RCMP did fine eight people for non-essential travel to Northern Manitoba over the course of one weekend in mid-May. Still, despite receiving $486 fines, the people who violated the ban weren’t forced to turn around and head back where they came from, as far as we know.

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The ban on some travel to Northern Manitoba is more about sending a message than about actually ensuring that people don’t violate the public health order. And, as Roussin has often said, education is more important than enforcement, since most people who are aware of a public health order will prove more than willing to comply. And while it might not seem like a big deal to some people to take their chances and travel north anyways, it is important to remember that the most recent cases of COVID-19 north of the 53rd parallel, the first in the region since April, happened as a resultt of contact with someone who visited Gillam from the Prairie Mountain health region, Manitoba’s hotspot for new and active cases of COVID-19 over the past several weeks. Thankfully, that person, who made their trip at a time when there were no restrictions on travelling to the north, was informed by Public Health that they were a close contact of another person who tested positive for the virus and were able to self-isolate, which led to them only spreading COVID-19 to one other person, who has since recovered.

As we’ve mentioned many times before in this space, no rule or law or public health order is guaranteed to keep you safe from being exposed to the novel coronavirus. The person most able to protect you is you, by doing simple things like avoiding crowded places indoors, washing your hands often and well and practising physical distancing when around people from outside your household. Given the number of people who have to travel from Thompson to Winnipeg or other communities in southern Manitoba, whether for medical appointments or even to purchase items that aren’t available or affordable here, cutting off all contact between the north and the south is impossible. But if you are following public health guidelines on how to reduce your risk of being exposed to COVID-19, it shouldn’t matter that the second northern travel ban is mostly symbolic. The real barrier to travel will come sometime between Thanksgiving and Remembrance Day, when temperatures drop, snow starts flying and people from the south have extra reason to stop and think about whether they really need to make this northern road trip or not.

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