There’s being good, and there’s being lucky. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse the two.
That’s likely what was happening while Manitoba’s COVID case numbers failed to mount.
With day-after-day reports of no cases, many seemed to conclude that while COVID was a problem, it wasn’t a Manitoba problem.
That’s simply incorrect and it ignores how Manitoba came to enjoy its calm before the storm.
First, there’s the timing of the disease’s arrival in Canada. On January 25 a man who arrived in Toronto from Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the outbreak, became the first presumptive case in Canada.
Meanwhile, winter made Manitoba an unattractive destination for many, buying time. Combined with our relative isolation, that gave us several weeks to prepare, and the benefit of learning from the experience of other provinces.
It was March 11 before the first Manitoba case was recorded in a woman who had recently travelled to the Philippines.
Nine days — and 16 further cases later — the province declared a state of emergency, closing non-essential businesses, schools and daycares. International and interprovincial travellers were required to self-isolate and self-monitor for COVID symptoms.
The goal was to ‘flatten the curve’ and there’s no denying that it worked. In the first half of July, the province enjoyed a nearly two-week run with no new cases. At one point there was just a single active case of the virus.
However, that led to overconfidence, and many rules were relaxed. Interprovincial travel within Western Canada, for example, was relaxed on June 11, doing away with the self-isolation period. International travellers and those coming from east of Thunder Bay still have those requirements.
As the province basked in this too-brief respite, the provincial government has moved quickly to normalize things, perhaps overshooting in the process. Its pitch for tourists in mid-July, for example, seemed particularly tone deaf.
And doing so ignored the nature of this outbreak, with its ability to spread rapidly from a single case. As epidemiologists have repeatedly pointed out in the past few months, COVID isn’t dangerous because it’s particularly deadly, though that’s a factor. It’s dangerous because of its combination of mortality and rapid transmission. It can explode exponentially.
We in Manitoba have a front-row seat to this reality playing out now. Last week, what should be viewed as a potentially serious scenario emerged, with reports of cases related to the Brandon Maple Leaf hog plant.
At press time that single case had become eight cases, a particularly troubling development considering the efforts the company had put into preventing just such an occurrence.
It instituted social distancing, Plexiglas separators on production lines, movement controls within the plant to decrease employee density, staggered shifts and provided additional break space. That’s on top of ramped-up sanitation efforts and the widespread use of personal protective equipment.
But they’ve run into the reality of a pernicious virus meeting an established plant design that functions just fine — when there isn’t a deadly virus circulating. This was expressed recently by a senior industry executive during a U.S. Senate hearing into COVID and meat packing.
“For better or worse, our plants are what they are,” Smithfield chief executive Kenneth Sullivan said. “Four walls, engineered design, efficient use of space, etc. Spread out? OK. Where?”
Just how bad an outbreak at a packing plant can be was played out in Alberta earlier this year. With the JBS beef plant becoming the epicentre, Brooks, a community of 15,000, suffered through one of Canada’s worst clusters. By the time it had largely run its course, more than 1,000 cases had been recorded.
In High River, home of the Cargill beef plant, the numbers were similarly grim. More than 1,500 cases were linked to the plant, and 945 workers tested positive. That’s in a community of just over 13,000.
How the situation in Brandon will play out is unclear, but all Manitobans should be concerned, and none more so than farmers, who could be more materially affected than many.
Already the United Food and Commercial Workers is calling on Maple Leaf to temporarily suspend production. And with international customers like China beginning to demand ‘COVID-free’ guarantees, how demand holds up is anyone’s guess.
If problems at plants in the U.S. hurt, Maple Leaf going down could be devastating for the sector.
Manitoba needs to collectively recognize the COVID fight is going to be a long haul, that we’re all in this together, rural and urban alike, and that we need a coherent and comprehensive plan.
Because it’s becoming very clear that our luck is running out.