Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Crisis, what crisis? If Canada is in a 2nd COVID wave, N.L. is watching it from afar

Across Canada, five new cases of COVID-19 are now being reported about every five minutes. As John Gushue writes, the situation in Newfoundland and Labrador is markedly different from the rest of the country.

As cases surge in some provinces, the situation in N.L. and others is markedly different

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on April 27. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

On Wednesday, Canadians tuned in to hear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make a national address on COVID-19. Trudeau got right to the point.

"The second wave isn't just starting, it's already underway," Trudeau said. "The numbers are clear."

Given that Trudeau just moments later said, "We're on the brink of a fall that could be much worse than the spring," I was expecting him to then lay down the framework for another lockdown.

That didn't happen. Instead, Trudeau appealed to Canadians to do their part to smash a curve that has been on rapid ascent in some provinces, especially British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

Are things that bad? Here's a comparison from the address that ought to have caught attention. "Back on March 13, when we went into lockdown, there were 47 new cases of COVID-19. Yesterday alone, we had well over a thousand."

There was no sense of panic after Trudeau's remarks — not across the country, but especially not here. What reaction I did notice locally on social media might be boiled down to "meh." That is, life is going on, and since Trudeau's address made for prime-time viewing in our time zone, it felt like a bit of a letdown.

Trudeau addresses nation after speech from the throne

News

2 months agoVideo
9:01
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a rare address to the nation following a throne speech like no other in Canadian history. The address and the speech were both focused on COVID-19. The Liberals also promised job creation and child-care investment. 9:01

Part of this reason surely must be that there are distinct COVID-19 situations in the country, and Newfoundland and Labrador — perhaps accustomed to watching national dramas from both geographic and psychological sidelines all along — is far away from a mounting crisis elsewhere in Canada.

Wildly different experiences in the pandemic

Consider this. In Ontario on Thursday — the day after Trudeau's address to the nation — 409 cases were reported. A month earlier, on Aug. 24, the number was 105. Quebec reported 582 cases on Thursday; on Aug. 24, that number was just 68.

The national tally has indeed been spiking in recent days. On Thursday, Canada logged 1,341 news cases of COVID-19 — or about 55 an hour. That's almost one a minute.

Or, to look at it another way, there are on average five new cases surfacing every five or six minutes.

To count the last five cases in Newfoundland and Labrador, you need to go back to Aug. 10. To count the last 10, we go back to July 22.

Passenger traffic at St. John's International Airport is gradually climbing, but remains a small fraction of normal volumes. (Gary Locke/CBC)

In other words, the pandemic situation here — like all of the other Atlantic provinces and the territories — is entirely different from provinces where cases are spiking. (Manitoba is dealing with double digits, while Saskatchewan's caseload has been comparatively modest.)

So … have we become complacent?

There's always that concern everywhere, and we should be no different.

But it's worth noting that a focal point of Wednesday's weekly provincial briefing was whether Halloween could go ahead this year. (A provisional yes, said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, so long as rates do not increase.)

Not only did we not see anxious faces that have been handling briefings in bigger provinces, we learned on Wednesday that the provincial government has stopped sending daily news releases on COVID-19. They'll resume when there is, well, news — presumably, a new case. Otherwise, data will be updated every afternoon on the dashboard of the province's COVID-19 website.

Crushing the curve

Newfoundland and Labrador, which had a scary spike in the early spring with a cluster that involved attendance at the Caul's funeral home in St. John's, not only planked the curve, but kind of crushed it.

Still, despite a gradual loosening of restrictions brought in through a public health emergency order, we continue to move through the impacts of living with a pandemic. We may be able to shop and move around more easily, but many facets of daily life are quite affected. In the weeks to come, there will be no fall fairs at local churches, no Christmas sales at the Glacier, no big concerts at Mile One. Live performances are resuming, but many chairs (every other row at the Arts & Culture Centre) will be vacant for safety.

The tone of COVID-19 briefings locally has been notably less grim than in some other provinces. Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, reactions to a question at Wednesday's briefing on whether she has plans to travel abroad. After chuckling, she said no. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

There will be no conventions, either. Indeed, there has not been that much travel. There was five times the amount of passenger traffic at St. John's International Airport in August than in April, but that's only because there was practically no traffic at all in those early weeks of the pandemic.

Consider this chart:

Month Passengers Decrease from 2019
April 2020 5,424 -95.4%
May 2020 6,780 -94.9%
June 2020 10,831 -92.2%
July 2020 21,791 -87.1%
August 2020 28,569 -84.1%

Source: St. John's International Airport

Newfoundland and Labrador's so-called travel ban — which prohibits entry to the province to non-residents (now outside the Maritimes) who do not have previously approved exemptions — continues to be divisive, but I see many people applaud it. Last week, Justice Donald Burrage upheld the ban, even though he also found that the order clearly violates charter rights of movement. Lawyers who argued the case say they are considering an appeal.

Legends of the fall

As I was making a cup of coffee early Friday morning, I noticed something that used to be common (like clockwork, really) in the air over the east end: the distinctive noise of a jet taking off at the airport.

It has occurred to me that the "new normal" of COVID-19 that we've all been talking about really means "the normal we are in right now, and it may change quickly."

We are connected to the rest of the country, and the rest of the planet, and things are fluid.

Trudeau, who used his address to call on people to behave responsively, said the outcome of the second wave is not predetermined.

"What we can change," he said, "is where we are in October and into the winter. It's all too likely we won't be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas."

At this end of the country, it would be an understatement to say people want the infection rate to stay as low this fall as it's been this summer.

It's also reasonable to think many people are looking forward to a "new normal" that moves closer and closer to the old one.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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