British Columbia

Health experts in B.C. divided over merits of severe Australian-style lockdown

A former Vancouverite who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has endured months of strict lockdowns says he believes the same measures could largely eradicate the spread of COVID-19 in British Columbia. 

Melbourne emerged from strict lockdown with zero cases, but some worry about the consequences

A pedestrian wearing a face mask crosses an empty street as the city operates under lockdown in response to a COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, in August. (James Ross/Reuters)

Former Vancouverite Graham Barron can really appreciate what freedom feels like. 

Barron lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two young children. For nearly three months beginning in August, they endured one of the world's most severe lockdowns. 

"It was really hard," Barron said. "It was difficult to be at home all the time."

Overnight curfews were put in place. Residents could only leave home for an hour at a time, and only within five kilometres. Masks had to be worn everywhere.

Graham Barron and his family used to live in Vancouver but they now live in Melbourne, Australia. (Submitted by Graham Barron)

Now, Melbourne hasn't had any new cases or deaths from COVID-19 in more than two weeks and many of those restrictions have been lifted. 

"There was just a kind of a quiet consensus that even though it was hard, that it was the right thing to do," Barron said.

Calls to implement similar measures in parts of Canada, including British Columbia, have grown along with the exponential rise of cases across the country. Physicians have rallied under the hashtag #CovidZero to bring the coronavirus back under control. 

Outdoor diners in a laneway in Melbourne in late October. In Melbourne, Australia's former coronavirus hot spot, restaurants, cafes and bars were allowed to open as the city emerged from its coronavirus lockdown. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP)

Dr. Anthony Chow, founding head of the University of British Columbia's infectious diseases division, agrees. Chow says current measures in Ontario and B.C. won't do enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.   

"The current thinking [is] to just sort of get people to do the right thing. I just think it's too naive," he said.

"This is a pandemic. And if you want to do something, you have to take drastic action." 

Support for B.C. approach

But some health experts say the restrictions in Melbourne were far too excessive, especially given some of the new understanding about how the virus spreads.

Daniel Coombs, a mathematics professor at the University of British Columbia who models infectious diseases, says he's generally supportive of additional restrictions to bring down the province's climbing numbers.

Australia’s highest court recently upheld a state’s border closure and dismissed a case arguing the pandemic measure was unconstitutional. The  High Court judges ruled that Western Australia’s border closure to non-essential travel applied during “a hazard in the nature of a plague or epidemic” complied with the constitution. (James Ross/AAP Image via AP)

However, Coombs says limits on outdoor activity and mandates to wear masks everywhere make little sense given that the virus doesn't spread as easily outside.

"I'm in favour of an approach where they close down environments where transmission can happen and also environments where it seems reasonable that transmission would happen," he said. 

Coombs doesn't even think B.C. needs to return to the same restrictions put in place in March. 

Instead, he agrees with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry's approach to examine where transmission is happening and make adjustments as necessary. 

'It would just kill some businesses'

Some health researchers also point out the potential harm some restrictions can bring.

A recent study found that Canadians in quarantine are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts. There would also be ramifications for businesses and the economy.

Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, says B.C. can't afford another shutdown like the one in March, let alone one like they had in Melbourne. 

"It would just kill some businesses," Huberman said.

A Fraser Health COVID-19 testing centre in Surrey, B.C. Surrey has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in British Columbia. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In Australia, government compensation during the lockdown included support for businesses and workers that many agree was far more generous than similar security nets offered in Canada. 

Huberman doesn't think governments here have enough in their coffers to support a full shut-down. She thinks more needs to be done to enforce the rules already in place. 

'There is no one playbook'

Tom Koch, a medical geographer at UBC who has written books on the history of epidemic and pandemic disease, agrees that a Melbourne-style lockdown would be overdoing it.

"Dr. Henry's getting a lot of criticism right now because the numbers have gotten so high," Koch said. "She has done, I think, an extraordinary job of containing this so far."

Koch says health experts around the world are facing the same problem humans have faced for millennia: how to co-exist with the virus while causing the least amount of damage. 

A lone shopper walks down the usually busy Degraves Street laneway, famed for its cafes and coffee, during lockdown in Melbourne, Australia, in August. Victoria state, Australia's coronavirus hot spot, announced that month that businesses would be closed and scaled down in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. (Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/AP Photo)

And unfortunately, Koch says, the situation is too complex for easy answers.

He points out that many of the worst-afflicted communities, like Surrey, are also home to workers in essential sectors that can't be shut down. Nor can governments close the factories, long-term care homes and prisons where outbreaks are most likely to occur. 

"The real take-home message is that there is no one playbook," Koch said. "People want a firm and easy answer. And the best we can give is a maybe."  

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