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Questions raised by Nova Scotia’s go-slow approach to economic recovery

May 21, 2020
By Michael MacDonald/The Canadian Press

Photo: ArtistGNDphotography/Getty Images

Nova Scotia was the last province in Canada to report cases of COVID-19, and it now has the dubious distinction of being one of the last jurisdictions to present a formal plan for reopening its economy.

As health authorities reported one new death linked to the virus and one newly confirmed infection on Wednesday, the province’s chief medical officer of health made it clear he would not waver from his cautious, go-slow approach.

“We understand that there are significant impacts from our public health measures (on the economy),” Dr. Robert Strang told a news conference in Halifax, where he sat more than two metres from Premier Stephen McNeil.

“But all you have to do is look around the world at other countries, like Germany, which opened up much more aggressively. They have had to step back and re-tighten things down.”

Federal guidelines

Strang has said the province is following federal health guidelines and he has stressed that the number of new COVID-19 cases caused by community transmission must drop to few or no cases for at least two weeks — ideally 28 days — before an economic recovery plan is implemented.

The province’s latest COVID-19 fatality was reported at the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax, which is the scene of the province’s worst outbreak. A total of 57 people in Nova Scotia have died from the virus — 51 of them at Northwood.

As of Thursday, Nova Scotia had 1,045 confirmed cases of the infectious illness, with 956 people recovered and eight still in hospital, four of them in intensive care.

In terms of deaths and infections, Nova Scotia’s numbers are worse than those reported in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and all of the other Atlantic provinces.

Consultations with business, labour

Meanwhile, the province is conducting consultations with business and labour leaders, who have been told that a wider reopening of the economy won’t happen until early next month — at the earliest.

Kevin Quigley, director of the Halifax-based MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance, said the Nova Scotia government has done a good job of earning public trust by demonstrating openness, knowledge and concern about the risks the province is facing.

However, the Dalhousie University professor said he’s at a loss to explain why a plan for economic recovery has yet to be released.

“I still wonder why the other provinces have felt it’s important to issue plans with milestones,” Quigley said in an interview Wednesday.

“Why isn’t there a road map for this, and what are the performance metrics? The other provinces seem to be doing that.”

The premier said his government wants to make sure businesses across the province are ready to get back to work as soon as Strang says it is safe to do so.

“The day that we are confident enough to open the economy, businesses in this province should be ready to start on Day 1,” he said. “We’re working as hard as we can to ensure that once we see this virus has been flattened, that those sectors are ready to open.”

Rationale, reasonable approach

Dr. Susan Kirkland, head of Dalhousie’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, said Strang’s approach has been rational and reasonable.

“Nova Scotia was one of the last provinces to have cases — and we’ve had quite a number over the course of this first wave — and I think that’s it’s quite prudent to ensure that we have our cases under control before we start to open the economy widely,” said Kirkland, a member of the federal COVID-19 immunity task force.

“The challenge is that if we open up too quickly, we will just be back in the same state we were, and then we go back into lockdown and that doesn’t help the economy.”

“A very slow, very phased approach is actually the most appropriate approach.”

She pointed to Quebec, which moved quickly to open its economy, but had to roll back certain measures, including a plan to reopen schools.

“It’s a very tough call,” Kirkland said.

“In smaller places (like Nova Scotia) we’re less equipped to deal with a massive surge.”

Nova Scotia was the last province to report cases of COVID-19 on March 15, and the provincial government declared a state of emergency on March 22.

However, parks and trails have been open for several weeks, and on Friday the government introduced a “family bubble” policy, allowing two households to come together without physical distancing.

Public beaches reopened Saturday, along with many outdoor activities, with the proviso that social distancing and hygiene be maintained.

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