‘It’s time for the hammer’ to get second wave under control: Dr. Sharkawy

OTTAWA — After a week of record-high case counts in several provinces and a series of regionally-specific adjustments to public health restrictions, CTV Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy thinks the time has come for a uniform national approach to get the second wave of COVID-19 under control.

“We’re in a pretty dire situation right now, I think it’s becoming abundantly clear: this is a nationwide crisis,” he said in an interview on CTV’s Question Period. 

“We need the hammer, and that hammer needs to be applied with conviction. It needs to be applied with some assertiveness, and we need to apply the support that’s necessary from an economic point of view to the people that would suffer if that hammer is laid down,” he said. 

Speaking from a Toronto hospital, Sharkawy gave the example of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s week of moving the goalposts around the colour-coded zoning system the province has been moved under, as an example of the “dissonance” being shown as of late between politicians and health experts in terms of what measures are needed to respond to a surging second wave of the pandemic. 

“The principles of containment need to be uniformly applied across Canada. I think the error that we’ve made is going through this piecemeal approach of wait and see, going through a nuanced dance if you will, of COVID-19,” Sharkawy said. “The dance isn’t working anymore; we’re breaking each other’s legs. We’re doing it economically, we’re doing it in terms of lives that are lost,” he continued.

Trudeau said Friday that Canada has to reverse its accelerating growth trends now, or the federal government and the country could be facing a series of hard choices about where to deploy resources to respond to an overwhelmed healthcare system and hurting economy.

“We’re seeing a really troubling surge across the country, the fact that Dr. Tam is highlighting that modelling predicts 10,000 cases a day across the country by early December if we do not bend the curve should be a wake-up call for everyone,” he said. 

“The federal government will always be there to help, but… our resources are not infinite.” 

As has been his position during the peak of the first wave, despite there now being far more new daily cases in Canada, Trudeau remains resistant to invoke what many have seen as ‘the hammer’: The Emergencies Act.

The federal law would supersede provincial jurisdiction to grant “extraordinary powers” to Ottawa to enact certain nationwide security measures.  

Trudeau has said that because the severity of the pandemic is not being felt equally across the country, locking down the territories and Atlantic Canada with the deployment of this act wouldn’t be proportional to the situation on the ground in that region. 

While he has asked broadly for provinces to “do the right thing,” he hasn’t outright called out one premier or another for not doing enough to contain the virus’s spread. 

However, in an interview on this Sunday’s episode, cabinet minister and Ontario MP Marco Mendicino said he’s heard from his constituents that Ontario has not gone far enough. 

“They’d like to see Ontario move more quickly when it comes to fighting COVID-19,” he said. 

“At the same time, you have seen a very healthy degree of collaboration between the federal government and all of our provincial and territorial partners… but there is definitely a moment right now that we are experiencing. We’re in the midst of a second wave, and we do need to act decisively,” said Mendicino. 

‘CIRCUIT BREAKER’ INEVITABLE? 

Though, as Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi noted in a separate segment, he’s not sure the provinces’ messages are being heard, and said he was troubled by the narrative that it’s a choice between public health and the economy. 

“Here’s a crash course in Canadian federalism: Your powers and authorities vary by province,” he said, calling it “particularly frustrating,” for him as he’d have gone further this week than Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s government has. 

He said that while it’s not yet inevitable that some form of “circuit breaker” will need to be flipped, it’s looking “extremely likely.” 

“Government policy really matters, but what really, really matters is individual action. Don’t wait for the government to tell you what to do,” he added. “Don’t wait for government to act, especially not here in Alberta. Make those decisions yourself today and we still have the ability to flatten that curve. It’s not a huge chance and it’s a very limited window, but we’ve got to do it.” 

HOW WOULD EMERGENCIES ACT WORK?

Formerly known as the War Measures Act, the current iteration passed in 1988 and has never been used. It allows for actions to combat urgent and critical but temporary situations that seriously threaten some aspect of Canadians’ lives, and that cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.

There are four types of emergencies listed under the Act: a public welfare emergency; a public order emergency; an international emergency; and a war emergency.

It’s likely that the COVID-19 pandemic would be deemed a “public welfare emergency” as it fits the bill of an emergency caused by “disease in human beings,” which is listed in this category alongside natural disasters and pollution.

And, as it may result in “a danger to life or property, social disruption or a breakdown in the flow of essential goods, services or resources.”

The Act explicitly states the requirement for parliamentary oversight on an emergency declaration. In addition to consulting premiers, an explanation of the reasoning for declaring an emergency would have to be presented within seven days to both the House and Senate.

Operating on the expectation that the government’s interpretation of the Act would be to view the novel coronavirus pandemic as a “public welfare emergency,” here’s some of what the government could do:

  • Regulating or prohibiting travel within any area within the country;
  • Evacuating people and removing or requisitioning personal property;
  • Directing any person to render essential services they are qualified to provide;
  • Regulating the distribution of essential goods and resources;
  • Making emergency payments and compensating those who experience loss as a result of actions taken under the Act; and
  • Imposing fines between $500 and $5,000 or jail time between six months and five years, for contravening any order or rule set under the Act.

Putting the country under these kind of restrictions is something that would likely be met with resistance. Premiers have advocated that they are able to decide what degree of public health measures are appropriate for their regions based on the COVID-19 situation on the ground, and small business advocates have cautioned that more closures could be “fatal.” 

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