Winnipeg now a leader among Canadian cities when it comes new COVID-19 cases per capita

Over the past week, the number of new COVID-19 cases announced in the Winnipeg health region per capita has been virtually the same as the new cases per capita announced in the Toronto health region.

Manitoba capital now on equal footing with Toronto in terms of key pandemic metric

Winnipeggers love to diss Toronto even as they sometimes envy it. The two cities now find themselves on equally unfortunate footing, according to one pandemic metric. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

If there's one game Winnipeggers love to play, it's comparing our mid-sized city to much larger Toronto.

It's usually a one-sided rivalry, as Torontonians generally have little occasion to think about Winnipeg. That doesn't stop Winnipeggers from taking unusual delight in despising Canada's largest town.

We hate it when the Leafs beat the Jets. It's not the team, we tell ourselves, but the insufferable fans. 

We are envious when Torontonians walk around in short-sleeved shirts in early April while we endure a late blast of sub-Arctic weather.

But most of all, we can not countenance the paradoxical parochialism that underlies the prevailing Torontonian attitude toward the rest of Canada. We simply can not fathom how people in what ought to be the nation's most sophisticated metropolis know so little about what exists beyond the 401.

Unfortunately, Winnipeggers can wake up today discontent in the knowledge that Manitoba's capital shares one grim statistic with Toronto.

Over the past week, the number of new COVID-19 cases announced in the Winnipeg health region per capita has been virtually the same as the new cases per capita announced in the Toronto health region.

It took seven months of the pandemic, but the two cities are on equal footing when it comes to a metric nobody wants to boast about: Over the past seven days, there have been 64 cases announced for every 100,000 people in both health regions.

This may come as a surprise to Winnipeggers who boasted in May and June about returning to restaurants, going to get their hair cut or watching a movie in an actual theatre well before almost anyone else in Canada. It was only July when the entire province of Manitoba went almost two weeks without a single new case.

But the past month in Winnipeg has been brutal. Since Sept. 15, the total COVID-19 caseload in the Winnipeg health region almost tripled from 597 to 1,688. During the same time frame, the number of COVID-related deaths in Winnipeg quadrupled from five to 20.

Winnipeg is now experiencing the full force of the pandemic, with a deadly outbreak unfolding in downtown's Parkview Place personal care home, COVID-19 cases in Winnipeg-area correctional centres and community transmission occurring at an alarming rate.

The pandemic has finally arrived in full force in Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Toronto, meanwhile, simply slipped back into a familiar level of pandemic discomfort. Unlike Winnipeggers, Torontonians never appeared to get cocky about the pandemic.

They couldn't, at least not after watching their own personal care homes suffer from horrific outbreaks early on and seeing their hospitals struggle to handle patients in a manner Winnipeg has yet to contend with.

It is quite possible Torontonians are more pandemic-hardened at this stage of a public-health disaster that's also become a collective economic and psychological nightmare.

It's not that Toronto is tougher. It simply has more experience.

Ontario public health authorities are not fooling around with the second wave of COVID-19 in its largest cities. Late last week, Ontario ordered all restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theatres, casinos and performing-arts venues to close again in Toronto and in the Ottawa health region, where 56 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people were announced over the past week.

There's also a renewed partial shutdown in place in the Montreal health region, where 88 new cases per 100,000 people were announced over the past seven days. 

Western Canadian provinces with problematic pandemic hotspots are not following suit. The Edmonton health region, where 76 new cases per 100.000 people were announced over the past week, is merely subject to public health recommendations.

"We're not going to enforce our way out of COVID," Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted on Tuesday. 

"Alberta's approach is to focus on the broader health of society — physical, mental, social, and economic — by encouraging personal responsibility, rather than micro-managing people's lives."

Manitoba's public-health philosophy is similar, even if Premier Brian Pallister tends to use more diplomatic language.

For weeks, both the premier and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin uttered the phrase "we have to learn to live with the virus" as they attempted to encourage Manitobans to observe public-health advice.

That phrase has disappeared in recent weeks, and not just because four times as many Winnipeggers have lost their lives to the virus.

Enough Winnipeggers demonstrated they didn't learn enough from the first six months of the pandemic to prevent the seventh from becoming the worst month yet.

So Winnipeg is now in the same boat as Toronto, at least when it comes to new cases per capita. If cases continue to emerge at this level for a few more weeks, more restrictions are certain to come.

That's not because Pallister, Roussin or Health Minister Cameron Friesen want another shutdown. It will happen because they won't have a choice.

More cases eventually means more hospitalizations. More hospitalizations eventually means a shortage of acute-care hospital beds.

Again, Toronto's been through this. Winnipeg hasn't.

A pandemic health-care crisis isn't anything Winnipeg ought to emulate, let alone envy.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.