With COVID cases rising in New Brunswick, how much longer will Higgs’s experiment with pandemic libertarianism continue?
While Alberta has grabbed the headlines for ending enforced quarantines for people testing positive for COVID-19, New Brunswick has not been far behind.
Blaine Higgs’ government on Friday, July 30 dismantled most of the province’s COVID-19 response infrastructure, scaling back mask mandates and contact tracing.
At time of writing (August 9), New Brunswick still has not met its target for a safe re-opening, which was 75 per cent of the eligible population receiving two vaccine doses. According to covid19tracker.ca, an independent, volunteer-based aggregator of Canadian COVID-19 data, only 61 per cent of the total population of the province has been fully vaccinated as of August 9.
Sadly, that is a long way from herd immunity.
There is room for optimism. The vaccination rates will change the course of the pandemic, but they do not end it, at least not yet.
Fully vaccinated people are less likely to transmit COVID-19 to unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people, but there is increased uncertainty about the delta variant, which is highly transmissible.
The reproduction rate of seasonal influenza (the flu) is about 1.28, meaning that every person infected with seasonal influenza will, on average, pass it on to 1.28 other people. Estimates of the Spanish Influenza from 1918 estimate a reproduction rate of 1.8.
We still don’t know what the reproduction rate is for delta, but in an uncontrolled, unvaccinated environment, it has been estimated at 3.5 or 4. The US Centre for Disease Control estimates the reproduction rate of the delta variant at between 5 and 9.5, making it about as contagious as chickenpox, but way more lethal.
It is not just that the delta variant is more transmissible, it is also more dangerous for young people, including children who remain unvaccinated.
Moreover, we do not yet know very much about long COVID, which appears to affect a significant percentage of the total case count at all ages, even in mild cases.
One study published in Nature pointed out that 13.7 per cent of those infected experienced symptoms 18 weeks after onset. The Lancet has published data from 2020 suggesting that the majority of hospitalized patients in the first wave in China were still experiencing symptoms after 6 months.
Another study reported that even among people with mild COVID, symptoms persisted beyond 6 months. Still another showed that among patients with mild COVID symptoms, a majority nonetheless experienced long COVID, or symptoms that persisted for longer than 30 days.
In fact, we don’t even know if people who are vaccinated can’t also develop long COVID symptoms that persist for months.
These studies point to a need for caution in public policy. So why are our Conservative governments not being, um, well, conservative?
From the very start of the pandemic, Conservatives in North America and Western Europe have opposed public health measures aimed at restricting COVID-19. Pandering to economic interests who wanted to continue to operate despite the risks to their workers, Conservatives in Canada have consistently jumped the gun in their re-opening efforts (remember Doug Ford’s March?).
As in Manitoba and Ontario in the spring, Blaine Higgs’s haste risks aggravating the pandemic.
New Brunswick was, in the first six months of the pandemic, effectively showing the way for other parts of the country. With no community transmission within controlled borders, our willingness to accept some restrictions enabled us to maintain as close to a normal life as anyone anywhere.
The Higgs government’s ‘Living with COVID-19’ plan, by contrast, articulates a Conservative pandemic response that pretends we can return to 2019 even as COVID-19 spreads within our communities. Maybe we can, but unfortunately we don’t actually know that yet.
There can be no return to the way we lived in 2019 with a virus as contagious as chickenpox but 20 times deadlier than the seasonal flu circulating and spawning yet new variants that may yet evade our vaccine defenses.
Pretending we can puts the burden of the pandemic squarely on the shoulders of those who could not yet be vaccinated, especially the immunocompromised and children under 12. The risk to the kids is unconscionable. The potential disruption to family life and learning if schools eventually have to remain closed this fall is enormous. The risk to frontline service sector workers, still among the lowest-paid in Canada, is also immense.
Since July 30, many workers have lost what little control they had to make sure their workplaces were as safe as possible during the pandemic. It is no wonder that so many workplaces have found it difficult to find staff.
A safer alternative to all this was clear: maintain some form of restrictions on travel from COVID hotspots; keep mask mandates in place to protect workers, the vulnerable, the immunocompromised, and our under-12 population; and restrict large indoor crowds.
This is what the majority of New Brunswickers wanted. Instead, the Conservative majority—a majority they won, many think, because of the sensible policies that a minority government followed in the first 6-months of the pandemic—has thrown it all away.
New Brunswickers deserved better.
Matthew Hayes is the Canada Research Chair in Global and International Studies at St. Thomas University and a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.