If you were disappointed to hear last Friday that COVID-19 pandemic public health orders that were expiring that day were being renewed with virtually no changes except some exemptions to allow the Winnipeg Jets and other NHL teams to play and practise in the province, you weren’t alone.
Many Manitobans were hoping that they could get back to work or reopen their business now that the number of new daily cases has improved somewhat. Even Premier Brian Pallister had been hopeful about a week earlier that some of the restrictions would be relaxed. However, when evidence that people hosting and attending Christmas gatherings led to the number of daily cases spiking back above the 200 mark, that hope died out. Now, apparently, the premier is hoping to see some changes to the restrictions by the start of next month.
It won’t however, be a return to normal. As chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a Jan. 11 press conference, “We’re not going to be in a position to just lift everything all at once.”
Understandably, many Manitobans are tired of the restrictions, of not being able to get a haircut, of not being able to buy a magazine in a store. Some of them also feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods, as the rules currently in place were described as a “circuit-breaker” when they were put in place, something short-term to interrupt transmission and help return the spread of the virus to more manageable levels. And the truth is, they probably were. It is much more difficult to convince people to go along with restrictions affecting their daily lives if they believe it will be for a long period than for a short one. It really wouldn’t do the battle against the virus much good at the outset to say, “Oh, you know, what, this might last 12 weeks or more,” because a) public health officials can’t predict the future and b) people are horrible at making sacrifices now in exchange for something valuable down the road, as anyone who’s ever tried to follow a diet can attest. Thousands of people defied public health orders and hosted gatherings over the holidays in December, so far leading to more than 500 confirmed infections with more likely to sprout up among the nearly 3,000 close contacts those people had. If they had been told in November that code red was going to last months instead of weeks, they might have started breaking the rules earlier.
Not getting to participate in regular life activities is tough, no doubt. But many of them are not going to be resuming in anything like their old form anytime soon. Two months of strict public health orders have taken Manitoba from a province where the COVID-19 pandemic was spiralling out of control to one where it is now manageable, albeit not without extra resources allocated towards the fight in the health care system. That is not insignificant. In November, there were days with 400 or even sometimes 500 or more cases. If Manitobans can go a little further and get the daily case numbers back to double digits and keep the daily death toll in the single digits, we could possibly soon return to the good old days of last September, when public health orders were less onerous. But if we do, people will need to take responsibility to ensure that things don’t get out of hand again and necessitate yet another tightening of public health orders.