By Guo Ding and Kenny Zhang
Before mid-March, British Columbia might have been considered lucky to some extent, considering the total number of COVID-19 cases and daily increase in new infections in Italy and Spain. More recently, there have been sharper rises in Quebec and Ontario in comparison to our province.
The relatively low number of reported cases and a flattening of the curve of newly added cases in B.C. can be attributed to a number of factors.
Voluntary self-isolation has proven to be essential in preventing community transmission in the early days.
When federal and provincial health authorities repeatedly gave low-risk assessments of COVID-19’s threaten to Canadians before mid-March, Asian Canadians wasted no time to stay on high alert to prevent the community spread of the disease.
Many B.C. residents placed themselves in a voluntary self-isolation for 14 days after returning from overseas. As of March 9, Canada had only nine cases among those who had reported recent travel history in China or were travellers' close contacts, accounting for 11.6% of the 77 then confirmed cases. Those numbers had shown no growth since February 23.
Practising social distancing is more than just keeping two meters apart.
When Canada followed the World Health Organization's advice to keep our border unlocked to international travellers, the Chinese Canadian community started practising social distancing in an innovative way. A group of volunteers was organized to provide pick-up services to passengers who were returning from international trips to avoid their use of public transit, taxis or ride-sharing services like Uber.
These volunteers installed a separation barrier in their vehicle between the driver and passenger, and kept their vehicles constantly sterilized. These volunteers also helped deliver groceries to the doors of those who were in self-isolation.
Self-isolating and social distancing didn’t stop cross-community care and support. When reported cases jumped in the Iranian Canadian community, a joint initiative between a Chinese community group and an Iranian Canadian organization was established to help members of both groups who returned to this country from the COVID-19 affected areas.
Such an initiative was quickly modeled by other neighbourhoods in this province and Ontario; thus, many good practices of self-isolation and physical distancing were able to be shared by different groups across Canada.
Nevertheless, the early luck should not be regarded as B.C. having paved the way to defeat the virus. On the contrary, since mid-March, we have seen that B.C. missed many critical opportunities that could have prevented the community spread much earlier and faster.
The province is still lacking a forward-looking strategy to effectively prevent the community from spreading and control the pandemic.
Health authorities keep providing confusing messages of social distancing. For instance, on March 16 the provincial health officer limited the number of people allowed to gather at 50, whereas other provinces have set it at zero or two.
Dr. Bonnie Henry also insisted for quite a while that wearing a mask didn’t help prevent transmission of the virus, while many other jurisdictions made it mandatory to wear a mask in a public space.
The most worrisome is that there is no test for those who have no or mild symptoms. Without proper testing, these individuals may not be aware that they are possible mobile infection sources putting their family and community at high risk.
Recent repeated community deaths of the aged rang an alarm of the failure of the current approach, which still offers no test to those individuals with no or minor symptoms.
To continue the early luck, B.C. can’t afford to miss two more critical measures before a vaccine or a specific anti-COVID-19 medicine become available.
The province should encourage all British Columbians to wear a mask in public spaces and test, test and test as the WHO advises.
Wearing a mask in public might not seem normal for those who grew up in western society. Unfortunately, the reality is that we are all in an unprecedented moment and many jurisdictions in Asia and Europe have shown strong evidence that wearing a mask reduces the risk of transmission of the virus.
As we make our health-care workers the priority, the general public should also be prepared to wear masks when possible.
In addition, more testing will definitely help identify infected cases—i.e., screening those who are seriously ill, with mild symptoms. or with no symptoms at all.
While our existing hospital system is still able to handle and focus on those patients in critical condition, temporary field hospitals should be open to accept patients with mild symptoms.
In the meantime, those infected who have not seen symptoms should be placed in restrictive self-isolation to stop the spread to their family and community.
Better late than never. Let’s wear masks and do more tests to defeat the virus in the most effective ways possible.