New coronavirus hotspots are unfolding around the world — some of which are in countries once lauded for containing the spread.
Experts have long warned that the green light to reopen can become a red light at any time.
“These countries are an example,” said Zahid Butt, a University of Waterloo professor in the School of Public Health and Health Systems. “We need to look at them and think, ‘What will happen in Canada?’”
Australia once prided itself on rapidly containing COVID-19.
The country implemented a ban on travellers from high-risk areas in February and closed borders to non-citizens in March. Later that month, schools, bars and other public places were closed and physical-distancing rules rolled out. Mask-wearing was also widely accepted, according to experts.
The strategy paid off at first.
By May, the country had successfully brought down its national daily case numbers to single digits, data shows, prompting the country to reopen. Principal health guidelines stayed put, but everything from schools to bars and restaurants to workplaces reopened nearly simultaneously.
That likely worked against Australia to some degree, according to Butt.
“They reopened everything and suddenly they started to see a rise in cases. It’s really a lesson-learned situation,” he said. “It’s definitely a lesson Canada can learn from, as well.”
The drop in cases also ushered in the revival of domestic travel and the return of Australian citizens and permanent residents, many via air travel.
“That’s the bigger risk with this whole thing,” Butt said.
While there were pockets of new cases following reopening, hotspots — focused in Victoria and New South Wales — began in July.
In Victoria’s capital, Melbourne, the outbreak is being blamed primarily on failures at quarantine hotels, where people who fly into Australia are required to complete a 14-day quarantine. Local reports suggest that private security personnel hired to maintain the hotel quarantine rules were improperly trained and are accused of rule-breaking. It’s believed the infection then spread from hotels to the community.
On July 31, Victoria reported 627 new infections. The state now accounts for about 60 per cent of the country’s 16,900 cases.
Spain has ping-ponged on containment.
It was dubbed Europe’s new epicentre for COVID-19 in April after cases surged.
Spain operated under a four-stage plan for easing one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. On June 1, about 70 per cent of the country moved to a second phase. Hotspots, like Madrid and Barcelona, stayed under tighter Phase 1 restrictions.
The national lockdown was officially lifted on June 21.
While masks and physical distancing continue to be compulsory, the move restored freedom of movement and allowed bars, restaurants and other spaces to reopen.
Many new cases are tied to nightclubs, discotheques and other social venues that were given the all-clear. In Canada, outbreaks have also stemmed from the reopening of bars in some provinces, with young people at the centre of the blame.
“They’re coming from younger people going to these things and they’re passing it to their parents and grandparents,” Butt said. “It’s a combination of reasons.”
Like Australia, Spain’s reopening plan also paved the way for some certain degrees of travel to resume.
Spain, like many other countries, wanted to kick-start the economy through tourism. Dr. Jacob Mendioroz, the director and co-ordinator of the committee responding to the coronavirus in Catalonia, told Time reopening the economy to tourism may have been “rushed.”
This is where they may have gone wrong, according to Butt.
“Regional travel there is a risk, but it’s more of a risk with international travel and tourism,” he said. “You are obviously going to see new cases when you reopen, but you need to balance things like the economy and the health of the population.”
Less than four weeks after lifting the lockdown, national health authorities warned that Spain could be heading for a “second wave” of the virus.
On July 30, the country reported 1,229 new coronavirus infections, topping 1,000 for the second day in a row. It marked the biggest rise since the national lockdown was lifted, and prompted authorities to re-tighten restrictions.
Tenkate believes complacency plays a role here, too, as it likely does in other countries around the world seeing spikes, like the United States and parts of Asia.
“A lot comes down to the actions we take as individuals now,” he said. “We have a role as individuals to allow that reopening to be extended and be successful.”
What can Canada learn?
For one, reopening the U.S.-Canada border is not the right move at this point, said Butt.
“That will only risk a spillover of cases into Canada,” he said.
But looking to how Australia is managing its localized outbreaks, responding to hotspots with regional restrictions could be mimicked, Butt said.
He pointed to the “bubble” rule in Atlantic Canada, where residents from Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island can travel freely between each province without needing to quarantine for 14 days upon entry.
“These are provinces that have little to no cases. That’s a way to boost local tourism without going too broad,” he said.
The approach ultimately needs to be co-ordinated as Canada continues to open up, said Tenkate.
“Lifting restrictions will always pose a risk,” he said. “Various agencies and levels of government will need to ensure that the messages are co-ordinated.”
Like Australia and Spain, Canada should recognize that it, too, will lock down again if needed, Butt and Tenkate agreed.
“There is no one-size-fits-all model to this,” Tenkate said.
— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press
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