After more than a year of avoiding crowds, scrubbing our hands and wearing masks, infectious disease specialists say that the COVID-19 pandemic – as we know it – is coming to a close for Canadians.
“I think we’re actually there already,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist, when asked how soon Canadians can expect to return to their pre-COVID activities.
“I think that we can open up safely and get to our previous lives now.”
But that doesn’t mean the pandemic is actually over for everyone, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“I think people will be surprised to find that in the last week, cases globally have gone up, not down,” Dr. Peter Singer, an advisor with the WHO, told Global News.
“This is far from over. Cases are increasing, and it’s not over till it’s over everywhere.”
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The Global end of COVID-19
Under international law, a pandemic is defined as a public health emergency of “international concern,” one that is an “extraordinary” event with the risk of international spread, “where international … coordination is needed” to address it, according to Singer.
That means that until the COVID-19 spread no longer meets that definition on a global scale, the pandemic isn’t technically over.
While Canada is setting its sights on back-to-normal, the disease continues to spread among nations that haven’t been able to secure enough vaccines. This poses a threat to us all, Singer said.
“In some parts of the world, the vaccination rates, even at one dose, are one per cent, two per cent, three per cent, five per cent,” Singer said.
“As long as that vaccine inequity or vaccine injustice holds, nobody is safe.”
The more opportunities the virus has to spread and to live untreated in someone’s body, the more possibility there is that COVID-19 could develop new mutations — and therefore, new variants.
Some of these could threaten COVID-19 vaccine progress around the world, Singer warned.
“To be safe is for this fire to be put out everywhere in the world, because otherwise, if it’s burning anywhere, it’s going to be casting off embers that are going to ignite flames everywhere,” he said.
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If the epidemiological situation around the world were similar to the one in Canada, international organizations would be much closer to declaring an end to the pandemic. There’s an emergency committee at the WHO that meets “regularly” to assess whether the criteria required to declare a pandemic are still being met in the case of COVID-19, Singer said.
Those criteria are based on the definition of a pandemic, which Singer described as:
- a public health emergency of “international concern”
- an “extraordinary” event with the risk of international spread
- an event “where international … coordination is needed” to address it.
“Those criteria are still met and the public health emergency is still in effect,” Singer said.
In order to change this assessment — and officially declare the end of the pandemic — Singer said countries will need to ramp up their generosity when it comes to sharing vaccines.
The WHO has set a global goal for vaccination efforts. By September, the organization is hoping to see at least 10 per cent of the population of every country vaccinated. By December, the goal is to hit 30 per cent around the world.
“The problem is supply and demand, and in the short term, the way to deal with the supply problem is for countries that have doses to donate vaccine doses. About a billion doses will be needed between now and the end of the year to reach at least the initial targets,” Singer said.
This is the only way to truly end the pandemic, according to Singer. It’s not as simple as saying it’s over. While there are boxes to check off, it’s unclear how it will be designated as finished globally.
“The national security of Canada depends on vaccination in every country in the world and on suppressing this pandemic in every country in the world, otherwise it will just be generating variants that could come back to bite us,” he said.
“And that’s even before you get to the arguments from ethics that every human life is of equal value.”
Is COVID-19 almost over in Canada?
COVID-19 is a “tale of two pandemics,” Singer said — and according to Canadian infectious disease specialists, Canada’s COVID-19 story is in its final chapter.
“If you’ve been fully vaccinated, your risk of severe outcomes is essentially eliminated and you can go back to doing things that you did before,” Chakrabarti said — though provincial restrictions still prevent Canadians from a full return to normal for the time being.
Recent discussions about COVID-19 in Canada have been framed in a way that taps into “people’s fears” that progress on COVID will be “taken away from us at the eleventh hour,” Chakrabarti said.
“I want to assure people that I think this is very unlikely, if not downright impossible.”
Chakrabarti isn’t alone in his optimism. Dr. Zain Chagla, who is also an infectious disease specialist, agreed that Canadians are “just at the cusp” of being able to get back to their normal lives.
“We’re coming soon to that point. Most of us can get a second vaccine in the next two to three weeks and a couple of weeks later are fully immune,” Chagla said, adding that this could bring us back to “pre-pandemic” conditions.
“There’s a little bit more time needed for some of our public expectations, in terms of masking and physical distancing, as part of our day-to-day lives. But that’s really rapidly starting to get smaller and smaller.”
More than 40 million COVID-19 vaccines administered in Canada: Tam
The specialists’ comments come amid enthusiastic vaccine uptake across the country. About 78 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, and more than 44 per cent are fully vaccinated against the disease.
Canadians might not be aware of how good these vaccines actually are, according to Chakrabarti.
“We have really undersold what the vaccines can do. Even with variants, we still haven’t found a variant that will completely escape the effects of the vaccine, especially against the outcomes we worry about, which is hospitalization and death,” he said.
Clinical trial data from all four vaccines Canada has approved — Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen and AstraZeneca — showed that every single jab was extremely effective at preventing hospitalizations.
Every time Canadian provinces have locked down, it’s been because COVID-19’s spread was overwhelming hospitals — and spread needed to be slowed in order to avoid forcing medical professionals to make impossible decisions. But with vaccines reducing the power of COVID-19’s bite, catching the disease doesn’t mean what it once did, according to Chagla.
“The disease becomes fundamentally different in people that are fully vaccinated as compared to those who are unvaccinated,” he said.
“After vaccines, that link between cases and hospitalizations is not as strong.”
Living with COVID-19
Still, for Canadians, the highly successful vaccination rollout is setting a stage for a time when the country learns to live with COVID-19 — as we do with other diseases — as opposed to stopping in our tracks to prevent it.
This might take some time to get used to, according to Chakrabarti. “Shifting our perspective” will be an important part of going back to normal, he said.
“Looking at daily cases is not really productive anymore,” he said, noting the fact that an increase in cases won’t necessarily lead to an equivalent jump in hospitalizations anymore.
“I think this should be changed.”
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Chakrabarti added that a time will soon come when Canadians will have to enjoy parties, rather than wagging the finger at them.
“When we see groups of people doing things, even if it’s doing something that you may not be comfortable with, for example, an indoor party, we have to stop moralizing that,” he explained.
“If somebody has an indoor party at this point in time, it’s not something that’s going to set off a chain reaction that can then cause massive waves of infection and hospitalizations.”
Still, Chagla said there’s still a few weeks to go before Canadians can expect the only risk of a house party as being a noise complaint from the neighbours.
“There are populations that haven’t been reached by vaccines that can show themselves very quickly to strain health-care systems,” he said, pointing to the Waterloo region as an example — a region that saw a brief surge in cases driven by the Delta variant.
“It’s not catastrophic, but it is uncomfortable. So I think we’re just at the cusp.”
And once we cross that threshold — which Chagla said could happen around “mid-to-late August” — Canadians will have to start getting used to brushing shoulders with one another again.
Chakrabarti recommended Canadians ease into it if they feel nervous.
“I’m not telling you to go straight to a Tool concert indoors, but you might want to start with having other vaccinated people over at your house for dinner and just getting comfortable with that feeling,” he said.
“Having people there — you realize that you won’t even think about it, once you become comfortable. And then you can slowly grade back up.”
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
Clean fuel standards allow companies to get both tax credits and sell carbon credits
OTTAWA — Canada’s new emissions standards for gasoline and diesel will allow oil companies that get a federal tax break for installing carbon capture and storage systems to also generate credits based on those systems, which they can then sell to refineries and fuel importers.
Cabinet approved the final regulations for the Clean Fuel Standard last week and The Canadian Press obtained them Monday ahead of their intended publication July 6.
The regulations require Canadian companies that produce or import gasoline or diesel to register as “primary suppliers” and then show how they are ratcheting down the life cycle emissions for the fuels by a fixed amount every year until 2030.
Life cycle emissions include every greenhouse gas produced from initial extraction, through refining, upgrading and transporting, to their final use such as to power a vehicle.
To comply with the new standards, companies need to show that they have reduced the life cycle emissions the required amount through a variety of activities, including buying credits from other companies along the life cycle chain that have reduced their own emissions.
Those credits can come from things such as building electric vehicle charging stations, replacing coal or natural gas power plants with renewable electricity sources, producing and distributing biofuels, or investments in clean technology including carbon capture and storage.
Carbon capture projects that benefit from the new federal tax credit — worth 50 to 60 per cent of the project’s cost — can also generate Clean Fuel Standard credits for sale.
“So they’re double counting,” said NDP environment critic Laurel Collins.
Collins said the Clean Fuel Standard is an “essential” tool to drive investments and conversions to renewable energy, but as it currently stands, it’s not appearing to be doing much of that.
Keith Stewart, the senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, said double counting projects isn’t going to generate additional emissions cuts, and instead just takes the financial weight off companies that are now rolling in cash.
“There is no rational way anyone should get a credit for the Clean Fuel Standard, and a 50 per cent tax credit, along with being able to write it off on the royalties, at a time when oil companies are making more money than God,” he said.
The federal government watered down the Clean Fuel Standard plan in 2020 at a time when fossil fuel companies were struggling because of a pandemic-related oil price plunge. But in 2022, oil prices have surged, largely because of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, and most Canadian companies reported record profits or near-record profits in the first quarter.
Collins is also dismayed that the implementation timeline for the new standards is being pushed back another six months. The draft regulations published in December said they would take effect in December 2022, but the final regulations push that back to the second half of 2023.
An Environment and Climate Change Canada official speaking on background because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the regulations yet said the date was moved to allow a longer time to create the emissions reductions credits gasoline and diesel producers need to comply with the emissions standards.
The Canadian Fuels Association wouldn’t comment on the final version of the regulations until the government officially releases them but said it has long supported the plan.
“The CFA and its members are obligated parties and have consistently been on the public record in support of the Clean Fuel (Standard) because it promotes a ‘technology neutral’ approach to decarbonizing fuels and provides policy certainty that is necessary for companies to plan and invest in low carbon fuels projects,” a statement from the association said Tuesday.
“In preparation for this regulation our members have already committed to billions of dollars of investments in low-carbon fuel technologies.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
Support dogs to comfort victims at Quebec’s specialized sexual violent courts
QUEBEC — Some Quebec domestic assault and sexual violence victims will be able to be accompanied by a support dog during court appearances.
Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette says a pilot project is being launched in collaboration with a guide dog training foundation and the province’s crime victims assistance group.
Support dogs will be offered in the province’s specialized courts that were recently created to handle cases of sexual violence and domestic assault.
Jolin-Barrette says the animals’ presence will provide comfort to victims and help them feel more confident and safe as they navigate the legal process.
The courts are located in Quebec City, Beauharnois and Bedford, in the Montérégie region; Drummond, in the Centre-du-Québec region; and St-Maurice, in the Mauricie area.
The Quebec legislature adopted a bill last year to create the specialized tribunals, which are designed to offer a supportive environment to victims who come forward to denounce their alleged abusers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.
The Canadian Press
Trudeau expected to face tough questions on Canadian military spending at NATO summit
MADRID — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to face tough questions at a major NATO summit this week as a new report released by the alliance ahead of the meeting shows Canada heading in the wrong direction when it comes to military spending.
Members of the 30-member military alliance agreed in 2014 to increase their defence spending to two per cent of their national gross domestic product, and the target is expected to be front and centre when the summit begins on Wednesday.
Trudeau met with NATO leaders Tuesday evening at a dinner hosted at the royal palace in Madrid by King Felipe VI, and will begin formal talks in the morning.
The new report released by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg estimates Canadian defence spending will instead decline as a share of GDP to 1.27 per cent this year, down from 1.32 per cent last year and 1.42 per cent in 2020.
The report did not specify the reason for the expected decline, or whether it includes $8 billion in new military spending that was promised in April’s federal budget and whose purpose has not been clearly defined.
Asked about the report during a news conference at the end of this year’s G7 meeting in Germany, as he prepared to head to Madrid for the NATO leaders’ summit, Trudeau said the government has announced several “significant” new investments.
Those include $4.9 billion to upgrade Norad, the shared U.S.-Canadian system used to detect incoming airborne and maritime threats to North America, as well as plans to buy new fighter jets to replace Canada’s aging CF-18s.
The prime minister also said Canada has repeatedly proven its commitment to the NATO alliance by deploying troops and equipment on a variety of missions, including by leading a multinational NATO force in Latvia.
“Canada is always part of NATO missions and continues to step up significantly,” Trudeau said.
“We know how important it is to step up and we will continue to do so to make sure that the world knows that it can count on Canada to be part of advancing the cause of democracy, the rule of law and opportunities for everyone,” he added.
Successive Canadian governments have shown little appetite for meeting the two per cent spending target, which the parliamentary budget officer has estimated would require an extra $75 billion over the next five years.
They have instead emphasized Canada’s numerous other commitments to the alliance, including the provision of 700 Canadian troops to Latvia along with several naval warships to assist with NATO patrols in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.
That is despite Canada having agreed to the target, as well as repeated exhortations from Stoltenberg and criticism from American officials in Washington calling on Ottawa to invest more in its military and collective defence.
The continuing decline in Canadian defence spending as a share of GDP will almost certainly lead to even more pointed questions for Trudeau in Madrid than was already expected, said defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
This is particularly true given confusion surrounding the government’s announcement last week that it plans to invest in Norad modernization, with uncertainty around where the money is actually coming from, when it will be spent and on what.
“I would assume that they were hoping to send a message with the continental defence piece that irrespective of what’s happening in Europe, Canada’s got other defence commitments and that contributes to overall alliance security,” Perry said.
“But the mechanics of how the continental defence piece rolled out would take away from some of that.”
That defence spending is on a downward track when Canada is facing pressure to contribute more overseas and struggling with significant military personnel and equipment shortfalls is also a concern, said Robert Baines of the NATO Association of Canada.
“I’ve always been amazed that Prime Minister Trudeau has facility for dancing over the very serious situation Canada is facing when it comes to defence,” Baines said. “Trying to do so much, and then having so many resource issues and challenges.”
To that end, Trudeau sidestepped a question over whether Canada is prepared to send more troops to Latvia, as NATO seeks to double the size of its forces throughout eastern Europe in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Latvia’s ambassador to Canada told The Canadian Press earlier this week that Canada is talking with allies about reinforcing the Canadian-led battlegroup in his country.
The battlegroup in Latvia is one of four established by NATO in 2017, with Germany leading another such unit in Lithuania and Britain and the United States responsible for forces in Estonia and Poland, respectively.
Germany and Britain have both said in recent weeks that they are ready to lead larger combat units in Lithuania and Estonia, but Canada has so far remained silent about its plans in Latvia.
Trudeau also wouldn’t say whether Canada is prepared to put more of the military on high readiness, as Stoltenberg announced on Monday that the alliance plans to increase the number of troops on standby from 40,000 to 300,000.
“We have been working closely with NATO partners, with the secretary-general of NATO, and especially with the Latvians, where Canada leads the (battlegroup) and is committed to making sure we continue to stand up against Russian,” Trudeau said.
“We, like others, are developing plans to be able to scale up rapidly,” he added. “And those are conversations that I very much look forward to having over the next couple of days in NATO.”
Baines predicted whatever additional troops and equipment are added to the Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia will predominantly come from other NATO members as Canada only recently deployed more troops to the region.
The government announced in February that it was sending an artillery unit and 100 additional soldiers to bolster the 600 Canadian troops already in the Baltic state. It also recently deployed two additional warships to the region.
Perry said it remains unclear how much more the Canadian military, which is short about 10,000 service members, has to spare.
“Maybe there’s an ability to find some more at the back of the cupboard,” he said.
“But if the alliance is going to collectively be stepping up with some additional … troop and equipment commitments, then I’m sure there’d be lots of pressure on us to be part of that as well.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.
— With files from Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
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