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The dark side of Canada’s coronavirus response

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These are, as Ottawa keeps reminding us, extraordinary times. And extraordinary action must be taken to contain COVID-19 and avert this global pandemic getting worse. But the federal government is decidedly not taking extraordinary measures when it comes to some of those who are most vulnerable to the deadly virus.

On Friday morning, news broke that a prison guard at the Toronto South Detention Centre, which houses provincial inmates and those awaiting a court hearing, had tested positive for COVID-19. That should have provoked some extraordinary action.

Prisons are incredibly busy places—inmates are admitted and released, while a litany of support staff and guards come-and-go every day. They are also, generally, crowded, poorly-kept, and lack essential health services. They are incredibly at-risk for infectious diseases.

That risk has pushed officials in New York, Los Angeles and Cleveland to take the most effective action to reduce the possibility of outbreaks in their prisons: Releasing inmates who are incarcerated on non-violent offences, or who are low-risk at re-offending.

Italy is evidence of what happens when those risks aren’t addressed. Amid fears of COVID-19, prison riots broke out, leaving six dead and inmates spilling out of the prison walls.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called on Ottawa to “to put public health ahead of fear” and immediately stop incarcerating those who pose little risk to the public, and release low-risk inmates who are elderly or immunocompromised.

Despite this, Canada has no intention of releasing inmates. Asked on Friday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted “we understand the heightened risk in those institutions,” but said only that he would “take measures to keep our incarcerated population safe.” He did not answer a question about releasing non-violent and low-risk offenders.

Those measures have, seemingly, involved depriving prisoners of their limited chance to leave their cells. Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt told me that one of his clients was given an extra bottle of disinfectant spray as a vanguard against the virus.

“Most of the jail population has been locked down in their cells for prolonged periods of time—sometimes three to a cell,” he says. Staffing is an issue, and inmates in some cases have not been allowed to video conference with their lawyers.

Simon Cheung, with Prisoners’ Legal Services in B.C., reported that conditions haven’t substantially changed at the Kent Institution, near Vancouver. A floor flooded last week, since then prisons have been in virtual lockdown. The water was only half drained, Cheung says. Two days after the flooding, prisoners were given just 15 minutes out of their cell. “They had to choose between mopping up the water and taking a shower,” Cheung says. Prisoners report that the jail is absolutely filthy and strewn with garbage.

Spratt says, in the absence of leadership from the politicians, Crown attorneys have been finding “creative solutions,” like agreeing to postpone cases until the summer while releasing the accused to house arrest. He says the Crown has been more receptive to probation over jail time, as well.

At the same press conference, Trudeau announced plans to close the border to all irregular migrants, turning them over to American authorities.

This, just a day after Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told Fox News that immigration enforcement would continue during the pandemic. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the American agency responsible for arresting and deporting non-citizens, has also announced that arrest of undocumented migrants would slow, but not stop entirely.

For years, Trudeau has resisted pressure to send back asylum seekers who cross at irregular points of entry, especially those coming over at Roxham Road, in Quebec. The migrants have crossed have been arrested by the RCMP, taken to detention facilities, and given a chance to file refugee claims—roughly half of those who have had their claims finalized in recent years have had their refugee claims approved.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there have been unfounded fears stoked that those migrants could carry the virus across the border. It’s led Conservative Party leadership contenders Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole to call for a crack down on the border. Quebec Premier François Legault also took aim at the border crossers this week. “It’s unacceptable that these asylum seekers are able to come into our country via Roham Road without being placed in isolation,” he said at a press conference.

On Thursday, federal ministers, promising that there would be no squabbling about jurisdiction, promised to isolate the border-crossers for 14 days in federal facilities.

That story changed quickly, as Trudeau announced Friday morning that Canadian authorities would arrest everyone crossing at Roxham Road and hand them over to American authorities.

“Someone who comes to the border to request asylum will be turned back to American authorities,” Trudeau said Friday.

At a second press conference an hour later, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair clarified, saying that “in the overwhelming majority of circumstances, they won’t be detained, they’ll simply be returned back to the United States.” Only in cases where the would-be border-jumper is a dangerous criminal would they be detained, he said. There would be an exception as well for unaccompanied minors who have “American nationality,” Blair said.

A statement from his spokesperson, Mary-Liz Power, confirmed Friday evening that any border-crosser “will be arrested by the RCMP, brought to CBSA for processing, and returned to [Customs and Border Protection] in the United States.”

Full details about the plan had not been released as of Friday night, just hours before the measures were scheduled to take effect.

It is still not clear whether Canada has received assurances from Washington that returned travellers will not, in fact, be detained. Trudeau said only that “we also have ensured that we are comfortable with this process as being in line with canada’s values on the treatment of refugees and vulnerable people”

A request for comment to Homeland Security went unanswered.

It’s also not clear whether this is, strictly speaking, legal. Canada has an international obligation to allow refugee applicants to make their case. Ottawa has long contended that its safe third country agreement, which holds that asylum seekers should make an application in the first ‘safe’ country they arrive in, gives it the authority to return migrants to the United States. Even still, Canada has continued to hear asylum seekers’ cases despite that agreement.

Amnesty International Canada was apoplectic at the news. Alex Neve, secretary general of the NGO, called it an “unexpected and shocking reversal.” In a release, Neve said that the decision means Canada is “violating our important international obligations to refugees, at a time when concern about their vulnerability to COVID-19 mounts worldwide. Canada is better than this.”

ICE facilities have been consistently slammed by civil liberties groups as being little more than warehouses with cages. Migrants are packed into these facilities, and often lack access to even soap. Staff in at least one ICE facility, in New Jersey, have tested positive for COVID-19.

While many of the border-crossers crossing at Roxham Road may have status in America, by way of a tourist or work visa, that does not guarantee them permanent residence, or a successful refugee claim. Indeed, more than 12,000 claimants have successfully been given refugee status in Canada since early 2017.

Washington, meanwhile, has rejected a huge number of those claims, and the Trump administration has enacted harsh new rules designed to bar many migrants already in the country from filing asylum claims altogether.

Blair says the number of new border-crossers has declined significantly, from an average of about 45 to 50 people per day down to 17 on Thursday. The minister continued that “there is no evidence that they are a higher health risk.”

Neither Trudeau, nor Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, nor Blair could convey what, exactly, changed between Wednesday, when Ottawa announced it would shut the American border to non-essential travel but continue bringing in irregular border crossers as before, and Friday when the new policy was enacted.

Detaining people in tight quarters, crammed into cells, in unsanitary conditions, with a lack of health care is no way to fight a pandemic.

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Coronavirus: Are call centre employees from Canada’s banks allowed to work from home? – Global News

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Only one of Canada’s six big banks says it is developing plans to allow some customer services employees to work from home instead of in crowded call centres —  the type of enclosed spaces with over 50 people that public health officials have urged Canadians to avoid in order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Global News reached out to the six major Canadian banks TD, the Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, Scotiabank, CIBC and National Bank of Canada to find out what they were doing to protect the health of thousands of call centre employees who are responding to inquiries from their customers.

All six said they have been providing essential services and dealing with high call volumes ever since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered tens of thousands of layoffs and a shutdown of multiple businesses and offices across the country.

The crisis has also prompted a flood of transactions as well as requests for emergency loans and other financial advice, the banks told Global News.

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READ MORE:
TD call centre employee in Halifax tests positive for COVID-19

But none of the six big banks provided detailed explanations why their call centre employees — who don’t need to meet with clients face to face — are being asked to work from offices with dozens of colleagues at a time when the federal, provincial and territorial governments are asking Canadians to avoid gathering in crowds that could speed up the spread of COVID-19.

While many other businesses have scrambled to provide employees with tools needed to work from home, the banks are not facing any mandatory rules to protect employees, other than to ensure they are kept physically distanced.

Instead, federal public health officials have promoted voluntary guidelines for businesses, including banks, to follow in call centres and other workplaces.

RBC was the only other bank that said it was starting to allow some customer service employees to work remotely and that it was “working diligently to securely enable even more call centre staff to work from home.” RBC didn’t provide details about where and how that would be done.






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Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau urges Canadians to continue COVID-19 prevention efforts over long weekend


Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau urges Canadians to continue COVID-19 prevention efforts over long weekend

Toronto-Dominion Bank said it would be allowing all staff at a Halifax call centre for TD Insurance to work from home after staff were informed on March 27 that one of their colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.

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TD told the Halifax employees in an internal email, sent on March 30 and obtained by Global News, that it hopes to have all TD Insurance employees at that call centre working from home “over the next few weeks.”

The message was prompted by the news that one employee had tested positive for COVID-19, leading to a deep clean of the third floor of the call centre where that employee worked and forcing 15 close contacts to self-isolate.

An employee who Global News agreed not to name in order to protect their job said roughly 100 people were still working at the call centre as of April 1, and had not been following the proper health guidelines.

“We often see the people, even supervisors, are not respecting the social distancing in the office,” the employee said.


READ MORE:
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The internal email said 182 employees of that Halifax call centre were already working from home. A TD spokesperson told Global News that common areas at the facility were closed and the remaining staff were split between four floors to “enhance physical distancing.”

But TD did not indicate any similar plans would be underway for any of its bank call centre employees.

A COVID-19 case was also identified at a CIBC call centre in Halifax in late March. A CIBC spokesperson said it had conducted a deep clean of the premises, where an employee told Global News over 100 people worked on each floor before physical distancing measures were put into place.

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Measures in place

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Public health officials across Canada have said that Canadians must aggressively practice physical distancing and remain at home as much as possible in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent it from overwhelming hospitals.

The CEOs of the six banks and several smaller financial institutions have publicly agreed they have a role to play, and have urged other businesses to follow suit.

The banks all told Global News they are taking measures to protect call centre workers. These include reconfiguring workspaces within their call centres to keep staff apart, in line with health officials’ guidelines to stay at least two metres away from each other.






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Coronavirus outbreak: Federal ministers respond to Ipsos poll on social distancing

But one labour expert was skeptical about whether the measures go far enough to protect the employees in the workplace or on their commute, for those taking public transit.

“To make a flat declaration that you’re essential and therefore you’ll arrange things and we’ll have to be confident that those arrangements will be safe — I mean, let’s hope they’re right, but it’s kind of a big leap,” said Mark Thompson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

TD, Scotiabank and National Bank said they have split up teams between different floors, or different locations altogether, to limit the potential spread of COVID-19.

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None of the banks beyond RBC and TD indicated working from home was even an option for these workers.


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BMO said it needed to maintain some onsite staff “to support critical operations.” Scotiabank also called its call centres “critical.” Neither bank provided detailed explanations of those critical operations, or why they couldn’t be performed from home.

A spokesperson for RBC said a “number of considerations” are factored into allowing an employee to work from home, “including employee health and well-being, technology and business continuity, along with the need to respond to our clients.”

When pressed by Global News, National Bank and CIBC declined to explain why its call centre employees needed to do their jobs in the office.

The six banks said in addition to physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning guidelines have also been introduced at all call centres for staff to follow.

The banks offered varying details about steps they were taking to clean and disinfect their call centres.






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Coronavirus outbreak: Dealing with screen fatigue during the pandemic


Coronavirus outbreak: Dealing with screen fatigue during the pandemic

BMO said all call centre facilities, personal spaces and common areas are cleaned multiple times per day. CIBC said workstations are now cleaned at the beginning and end of each shift, while cleaners are also present during the day.

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TD said the cleaning and sanitizing of all premises have been increased, and are stocking spaces with hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.

National Bank would only say they were promoting “basic hygiene measures” like hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Scotiabank said they have increased sanitization and deep cleaning measures at all locations. RBC also said they have “enhanced sanitization.”

The banks are also increasing their perks for call centre staff. BMO, RBC, Scotiabank and CIBC have introduced a $50 daily stipend for each of those staff members for every day they work onsite.

CIBC has thrown in free parking. Scotiabank is stationing nurses at all call centres “to provide in-person wellbeing support for mental and physical health concerns.”

TD and CIBC are offering up to 10 paid days for anyone impacted by the pandemic, including those who are unable to secure childcare. TD is also providing free counselling.

National Bank did not say if it was offering similar incentives to its employees.


READ MORE:
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Only National Bank and TD would share where their call centres are located and how many people work in them. National said it has “five main teams working in different sites” across the greater Montreal area, for a total of 1,000 employees. The spokesperson would not confirm exactly how many sites were being operated, or how many employees were working in each site.

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TD said they have call centres in Moncton, N.B., Montreal, London, Ont., Ottawa and Markham, Ont., though did not share how many employees work in each, or if more than one site was operated in a single city.

The other banks did not share where their call centres are located, or even if they’re located in Canada.

In 2013, CBC reported RBC was replacing some of its Canadian staff with temporary foreign workers from India, leading to a public apology from the bank. RBC eventually walked back the plan, committing to only hiring foreign workers if Canadians aren’t available to fill that job.

Can government step in?

Along with health care, transportation, government centres and media, banks and other financial institutions have been declared essential services by the federal and provincial governments, and should therefore continue to operate.

The federal finance department referred questions about remote work for call centres to Health Canada, who in turn forwarded the query to Employment and Social Development.

In a statement, a department spokesperson said employers have been told to create or update existing hazard prevention programs in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and are responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of any changes to those plans.


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“We recognize that many employers who are able to continue their operations during the COVID-19 crisis are going above and beyond standard health and safety measures, and are doing everything possible to accommodate reasonable requests from employees,” the statement read.

“We all have a role to play to help flatten the curve.”

Thompson, the UBC business professor, says no matter how many precautions employers may take, they’re still “taking a chance” and posing a risk to both employees and the public at large by keeping workplaces open.

He admits that banks could be worried about security breaches in not moving call centres to home, as they deal with sensitive information to confirm callers’ identities.

But he says he’s still “surprised” that a solution hasn’t been found amid months of warnings and weeks of efforts to ramp up social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19.






1:39
How to be productive while working from home during a pandemic


How to be productive while working from home during a pandemic

“We’re still waiting to see if these efforts work, but we should be doing as much as we can,” he said. “[The banks] are obligated to provide a safe workplace.

“If just one person contracts this disease … I guess we’ll find out then what steps they’ll take.”

Employment Canada said requirements for businesses to have all employees work from home is a provincial matter. So far, no province has made such an order, although Alberta has now made it mandatory for businesses to practice physical distancing, threatening fines for those who disobey.

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All of the provinces and territories have placed restrictions on gatherings that have led to the closure of businesses and public spaces closures, with exceptions for businesses and organizations that offer essential services.

Many provincial governments who responded to Global News said as long as workplaces, including bank call centres, can maintain physical distancing, they can continue to stay open and operate.


READ MORE:
Coronavirus: Canadians should expect weeks or months of social distancing, Trudeau says

“If social distance can’t be maintained, the business must limit the number of customers or clients on its premises to no more than five people at a time,” a spokesperson for Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 response said in an email, citing that province’s social distancing guidelines.

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health said banks are considered an “allowable business service” in the province, along with health care, law enforcement, transportation and the media.

“We cannot speak directly to the relationship between banks and their call centre employees,” a spokesperson said.

A statement attributed to New Brunswick Labour Minister Leigh Watson said any employee concerned that their employer is violating the Employment Standards Act by forcing them to work in unsafe conditions can file a complaint with the province, or through WorkSafe.






0:57
Coronavirus outbreak: Canadians’ actions today will determine where we are a month from now


Coronavirus outbreak: Canadians’ actions today will determine where we are a month from now

Yet British Columbia’s COVID-19 Joint Information Centre said all employers “should support their employees to work from home whenever it is possible,” and “ensure there are no more than 50 people working in the same confined space.”

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“Employers have a responsibility and an obligation to maintain a healthy and safe workplace for their workers,” a spokesperson said.

In March, the CEOs of all six banks signed an open letter, published in the National Post, along with roughly 100 other Canadians business leaders who urged employers to “immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of this coronavirus.”

“Enable your employees to practice social distancing. Facilitate work-from-home for all non-critical business functions,” the leaders stressed.

“Understand that your employees are looking to you for leadership and trusted information in turbulent times.”

— With files from Global’s Alexa MacLean and Graeme Benjamin

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Government documents reveal a slow start to Canada's COVID-19 response – CBC.ca

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Briefing notes prepared by bureaucrats for federal ministers show just how quickly the COVID-19 situation evolved in Canada — with public health officials stating the risk of transmission in Canada was low right up until early March, only to recommend an ordered shutdown of economic life in this country some two weeks later.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Thursday that it could be as long as a year before normal life returns in Canada — a dramatic change in messaging, considering how Public Health Agency of Canada officials were advising policymakers less than two months ago that COVID-19 risks were low in this country, and that mandatory quarantines for returning travellers would be too difficult to enforce.

A March 10 department-drafted briefing note prepared for Health Minister Patty Hajdu ahead of question period said that, with just 12 cases being reported nationwide at that point, “the risk of spread of this virus within Canada remains low at this time.” The note also said the public health system is “well-equipped to contain cases coming from abroad, limiting the spread in Canada.”

A month later, Canada has more than 21,000 cases.

As the documents show, as early as Jan. 28 the World Health Organization (WHO) was describing the risk of COVID-19 transmission as “very high” in China and “high at the global level.”

Early messages from bureaucrats to Health Minister Patty Hajdu never hinted at the eventual scope of the pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The tranche of documents, prepared by various government departments and tabled with the Commons Health committee late Wednesday, include many of the early planning memos that informed the federal government’s response to COVID-19 in January and February.

They show that while the government was seized with repatriating Canadians from China’s Hubei province and various cruise ships during that time, there was little talk of a possible pandemic.

Public health officials questioned the accuracy of media reports out of the city of Wuhan, in Hubei, suggesting that the virus was spreading through person-to-person contact.

“Based on the latest information that we have, there is no clear evidence that the virus is easily transmitted between people,” a Jan. 19 briefing note prepared for Hajdu said.

The documents also reveal that the government was reluctant to strictly police travellers arriving from Hubei, the region of China where the novel coronavirus is thought to have originated.

‘Next to impossible’ to stop COVID-19: minister

According to talking points prepared for a Jan. 30 call with her provincial and territorial counterparts, Hajdu said preventing the virus from arriving in Canada was “next to impossible” because of the nature of global travel.

“What really counts is limiting its impact and controlling its spread once it gets here,” the talking point reads.

Three days later, the U.S. barred all non-citizens coming from China from entering the country.

While there were information booths at major Canadian airports starting on January 21, the decision to collect personal contact information from inbound Hubei travellers was only made on Feb. 19 — information that could then be used by public health officials to follow up with people if an outbreak emerged.

Scenes from a pandemic: passengers arrive at the Calgary Airport after being briefed on mandatory self-isolation rules March 25, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The government relied on individuals to self-report to Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers if they were experiencing flu-like symptoms, long after temperature monitoring measures were commonplace at airports in Asia.

Between Jan. 22 and Feb. 18, 58,000 travellers arrived in Canada from China — 2,030 of them were coming from Hubei province.

Only 68 were pulled aside for further assessment by a quarantine officer and only three passengers were actually flagged for a medical exam — the other 65 passengers were sent away with a pamphlet.

It’s impossible to know how many pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic passengers were released into the general Canadian population.

Bureaucrats warn against mandatory quarantines

On Feb. 7, the government started recommending that inbound Hubei passengers start to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days to prevent transmission.

In an undated memo to Hajdu sent in mid-February, department officials warned that Canadians may question the effectiveness of “voluntary” self-isolation measures for these travellers.

But the memo says “there is no ability to enforce or ensure compliance” with a mandatory isolation order without the use of the Quarantine Act — a measure the government would end up enacting weeks later.

The memo said it was best to leave all self-isolation measures as voluntary to ensure there is “less pressure on public health resources.”

The memo said public health officials didn’t have the capacity required to quarantine passengers from China; 20,000 such travellers were arriving in Canada each week at the time.

The Public Health Agency scrubbed any references to China in pamphlets disseminated to returning travelers starting on Feb. 24, after it was clear that there was community spread of COVID-19 in countries like Iran and Italy.

I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic.– Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Calls between Hajdu and her provincial and territorial counterparts later in February focused on quarantine facilities for returning Hubei and cruise ship travellers in Trenton and Belleville, but said little about how the various jurisdictions would respond if COVID-19 escalated.

According to briefing notes for a Feb. 10 call, Hajdu said that while the country was in a “containment phase, we cannot ignore what comes next.”

The note states that the Public Health Agency of Canada was “doing advanced thinking and scenario analysis, including a pandemic scenario,” but it’s not clear if those scenarios were actually discussed with provinces and territories on that call.

The pandemic has made N95 masks rare and coveted objects. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Health Canada expected Hajdu would be pressed by the provinces about the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) on the call. The department told her then there were ongoing “attempts” to secure devices like N95 and surgical masks for the national stockpile but “deliveries were staggered by industry due to mounting market pressures.”

It said it had procured only a “modest” amount of the masks — items that would be badly needed a month later.

By Feb. 26, when there were 78,000 COVID-19 cases in mainland China, public health officials continued to counsel Hajdu that “the public health risk within Canada remains low.” A month later, there would be 1,000 cases in Ontario alone.

Even after the number of suspected COVID-19 cases in Canada started to rise by mid-February, Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg did very few tests, with most of them reserved for travellers from China. It is now understood there was widespread transmission of the disease in Europe and in some U.S. hotspots like New York by this time.

By Feb. 17, the national lab had run only 461 tests — a marginal increase from the 367 tests run the week before.

By Feb. 25, Ontario and B.C. had provincial labs ready to test but the other provinces were still relying on sending samples to Winnipeg — a cumbersome process that made it difficult to identify and isolate cases in the other provinces early on.

Countries ‘caught off guard’: Trudeau

When asked Thursday what went wrong in the government’s COVID-19 planning, Trudeau said there will be time for reflection at a later date. He said he was confident the government made the “best decisions” with “the information we have.”

“I think we’ve seen countries around the world caught off guard by the nature of this epidemic,” he said. “The challenges we faced in terms of getting Canadians protected are echoed in challenges faced around the world.

Watch: Trudeau warns Canadians need to remain vigilant

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said normal life for Canadians will not return until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed 2:32

“I think Canada has done a good job of keeping on a path that is going to minimize as much as possible the reality we’re in right now. As we look back at the end of this, I’m sure people will say, ‘You could have done this a few days before.'”

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Canadians would not have backed strict pandemic measures in mid-January, says official – CBC.ca

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Closing the border and telling the public to self-isolate at home in the early days of Canada’s COVID-19 outbreak would have done more harm than good, according to a national public health organization.

Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), told a virtual committee of MPs today that while critics have said the federal government should have acted sooner, there would have been “very little” public support for strict measures in the middle of January, which could have undermined health officials’ efforts when the situation became more dire.

“Low public support would have led to low-level adherence and a diminished support for any future interventions,” he said. “Slowly, you have to change people’s thinking … that takes time. It takes evidence. You have to prove to people that it’s serious.”

The House of Commons health committee is studying Canada’s response to the COVID-19 virus to ensure the federal government learns lessons that can be applied to the next pandemic. The Liberal government has faced criticism for waiting until the eve of Ontario’s March break to tell people not to travel. The Conservatives have accused the Trudeau government of failing to restrict public gatherings soon enough and waiting too long to impose tougher measures at the border.

After critics accused it of lax screening at airports for returning travellers, Quebec Premier François Legault sent his own public health officials and police to airports to warn travellers to self-isolate for two weeks. This week, B.C. Premier John Horgan took it a step further and imposed a new legal requirement forcing travellers to present formal self-isolation plans to authorities at airports and border crossings.

Culbert said while public health officials’ incremental approach has been attacked, he believes it was backed up by evidence.

Culbert said it’s hard to change human behaviour — especially in Canada’s case, given that the pandemic started halfway around the world in China. Canadians felt a sense of “insulation,” he said. That attitude carried on even when Canada reported its first cases in British Columbia and Ontario, he added.

“There’s a sense of them and us,” he said. “Slowly, you have to change people’s thinking. There’s no them and us. It’s a ‘we’ situation.”

He turned to an example from the 20th century: when Canadians with tuberculosis were forced to leave their families and isolate in sanatoriums, he said, many avoided public health authorities as a result, which spread the disease further.

“This shows coercive actions can only be used as a last resort,” he said. 

Watch: ‘This will be the new normal until a vaccine is developed’: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it will take months of Canadians’ “continued, determined effort” to follow pandemic measures such as physical distancing to overcome COVID-19. 1:55

There’s been a “massive cultural change” over the last century in the public’s attitudes toward science and health authorities, Culbert added. But he pointed to the anti-vaccination movement as a current example that shows public health officials can’t just tell people what’s good for them and expect them to listen.

“Just telling people the right thing to do doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “We have to convince people. It takes time, unfortunately … but it’s actually what works.”

‘We’re just trying to strengthen the message’: Tam

Conservative MP Tamara Jansen questioned the government’s incremental approach to the restrictions. 

Jansen said that in January, the Langley Chinese Cultural Arts Association cancelled a large event proactively before Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam banned large gatherings.

She also said that, early in the outbreak, members of the Chinese community in B.C.’s Lower Mainland were picking up people at the airport returning from China to ensure they didn’t take cabs. They were also buying them groceries so they didn’t go to the grocery store, she said.

“They were begging me to get the government to be more proactive,” said Jansen. 

“This was all done on a completely voluntary basis. Is it possible it was a misjudgment of [the] willingness of Canadians to self-isolate that this didn’t go quicker?”

Watch: Tam and Freeland explain how closing the U.S. border helped fight COVID-19:

Dr Theresa Tam Canada’s Chief Public Health officer and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke with reporters on Thursday 2:12

Culbert said this particular community likely felt directly affected because of their ties to the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.

“You’re talking about a highly sensitized community,” he said. “They had a direct connection [to] what was happening in China and were very much aware. Many Canadians were not that connected and [were] thinking of it as a problem on the other side of the country.”

Dr. Tam, meanwhile, was asked at a press conference today if she’s recommending the government enact even stricter measures.

Tam said she’s working with her provincial and territorial counterparts to monitor the trajectory of the pandemic and figure out how effective the current measures are. She said innovative studies are underway to track how well Canadians are following those measures, which could point to places where they can be bolstered.

Watch: Trudeau asked how should Canadians react to many more months of shutdowns:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters on Thursday. Earlier federal officials released models which predict many more months of self distancing needed to fight the virus. 2:30

“We’re just trying to strengthen the message to Canadians that really you should avoid all non-essential travel and stay at home as much as possible during this critical period,” she said.

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