A Canadian lesson on coping with COVID-19
Hello American friends and family,
I want to let you know what’s happening up here in British Columbia on the COVID-19 front. We now have 53 cases (in a province of 5 million) but the province is doing an extraordinary job of communication and case management.
Crucial to containment efforts, there is a lot of coronavirus testing: We’ve tested at least 2,008 people — compared to 2,747 in Ontario, a province with nearly three times the population. I truly feel there is no jurisdiction in North America that is doing a better job of managing the crisis.
As of today, the measures in place include very stern warnings to cut out any international travel, including to the United States. People who leave the country are asked to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. This was announced in the now-daily press conference held by BC’s health minister, Adrian Dix, and our province’s chief public health officer, Bonnie Henry, who is now referred to in worshipful tones across the country, because she’s doing such an effective and compassionate job. (You may know her from such hits as, “Wash your hands like you’ve been chopping jalapeños and you need to change your contacts.”)
I think this de facto travel ban is absolutely the right move, but it feels strange and sad. Our own family has been taking serious social distancing measures, and (at my mom’s behest!) skipped our last planned trip to Bellingham, right after the news of the Seattle outbreak. (So many Canadians pop down to Bellingham for groceries, our minister of health specifically mentioned it in today’s announcement.) And the last of my Trader Joe’s chocolate supply is currently locked in a safe I can’t get open, so this could get real ugly, real fast.
That’s the least of it, though. One of the things I love about Vancouver is that it’s so close to the border (45 minutes!) that it allows me to feel like a true dual citizen of both my countries: I’m in the U.S. every month, if not in Bellingham then for a family weekend in Seattle or a business trip to New York or Boston. All of that is a minor thing to miss, but the much bigger thing is knowing I’m now effectively separated from my American friends and family, for who knows how long.
I have to admit, I’m feeling a little guilty for abandoning all of you at this moment, because I think this is going to be a much harder time in the U.S. than it will be for Canada. (And it’s no cakewalk here: We actually have fewer hospital beds per capita, and lots of parts of the country where it’s too cold to socialize outside at this time of year….so social distancing is really tough!)
But gosh, this is a moment when living in a country and province with sane government and universal healthcare feels like such an incredible blessing. In part that’s because I know people can go to the doctor if they’re feeling ill, which is a crucial first line of defense. There are plenty of tests available, at least here in BC; our local doctor’s office is actually set up to do tests, so that’s no obstacle if we or anyone else need it. And of course, a society where people mostly have easy access to routine medical care is a society where baseline health is stronger, so folks who get sick are more likely to be resilient.
Most of all, though, I am feeling deeply appreciative for the sense of collective caring that is both a cause and a result of our national healthcare system. Whether I am speaking with friends or with the guy buying 30 cans of tuna at the grocery store, there is such a strong sense that we are in this together. When you don’t have to wonder who could get a test, or who can’t, or whether that cough you just heard is an undiagnosed patient who couldn’t afford to see a doctor, it is just way easier to feel like we’re all on the same team.
Considering that our very best tool for fighting coronavirus is social distancing to “flatten the curve”, the sense of this as a collective project is truly our most profound asset. There is quite a bit of truth in the stereotype of Canadians as dutiful, considerate types, and at this particular moment, those qualities may turn out to be incredible advantages.
My favorite Canadian joke is: “How do you get 40 Canadians out of a swimming pool?”
Answer: “Hey Canadians, get out of the swimming pool.”
Right now, it feels like folks on this side of the border are doing their very best to get out of the swimming pool…because we are lucky enough to have leaders who are asking us to do it. I really hope my American friends and family will soon see similar leadership on the other side of the border, and especially at the White House, because gosh, I miss you already.