‘It feels like nothing’s changed’: Are COVID-19 lockdowns effective? Experts weigh in

As cases of COVID-19 continue to soar across the country, some provinces are locking down in a desperate effort to curb a third wave of the virus. But as Canadians embark on their second year of the pandemic, many are questioning whether the restrictions are working.

This was true for 33-year-old Sarah Estrin, who has resided in Toronto throughout each of Ontario’s lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and “emergency brake.”

“I understand that it feels like it’s needed, because of the variants that are now really very much spreading — and spreading rapidly. But at the same time, the overall feeling of the lockdown is just that it’s not doing anything effective this time,” she told Global News.

“We’ve done now the same thing with maybe a little bit of different variation and it feels like nothing’s changed and nothing’s going to change.”

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How Estrin is feeling represents a bleak reality for many Canadians across the country.

Recent statistics by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies and the University of Manitoba suggest more than 40 per cent of Canadians feel safe attending family gatherings at this point, and a quarter believe the government is overhyping the dangers of COVID-19 — despite cases of COVID-19 rising across the country.

On Friday, Canada’s rate of new cases of the virus even surpassed that of the United States, reporting 205.73 new cases per million on a rolling seven-day average, relative to the country’s population, while the U.S. sat at 205.12.

In a bid to stop the spread of the virus, Ontario issued a province-wide stay-at-home order on Thursday, and closed non-essential businesses as part of an “emergency brake” shutdown on April 3 just one week after announcing restaurants could reopen.

Other provinces have followed suit.

British Columbia, which was initially lauded for its low COVID-19 case count, activated its “circuit breaker” on March 29, cancelling indoor exercise classes and indoor dining at restaurants, pubs and bars.

In Quebec, COVID-19 restrictions have been tightened throughout the province’s red and orange zones, re-establishing curfews aimed at keeping Canadians indoors.

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Alberta stopped short of announcing a complete lockdown last Tuesday, moving the province’s Path Forward plan for relaunching the economy back to Step 1.

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Experts agree that lockdowns have the potential to be an instrumental tool in reducing COVID-19 transmission, but only when they are applied correctly.

They aren’t the only effective way to reduce transmission.

“We should be doing a bundle of things, not just waiting until things get really awful and then locking down,” said Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, adding that some measures in Canada have been more effective than others.

When followed, he said, they are a powerful tool that keeps people from circulating the virus, flattens curves and keeps health-care systems from becoming stretched beyond capacity.

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Countries such as China, New Zealand and Australia, which led lockdowns with an iron fist, are now quietly returning to some semblance of normal.

China’s was by far the most drastic, with health authorities enacting a lockdown that saw people confined to their homes for 76 days.

In New Zealand, health officials imposed four-level alert systems, limited travel and cancelled all mass gatherings shortly after detecting the country’s first handful of cases in March of last year. Meanwhile, Australia implemented a severe 111-day lockdown that mandated masks, shut down non-essential travel and barred residents from leaving their homes outside of exercising, caregiving, working or buying essential supplies.

“Lockdowns stink, but they work,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases expert and member of Ontario’s Vaccination Task Force.

“They won’t solve all the issues, though, because you can’t just add restrictions and not add supports.”

This includes mental health and financial support, as well as supports for essential and front-line workers, many of whom, he said “don’t have the luxury of locking down.”

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‘All or nothing’

Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said the pandemic would likely be “a lot worse” if it weren’t for tougher restrictions. But, he said lockdowns are more effective when they’re “iron-clad” and were at their most helpful at the beginning of the pandemic when cases were still at containable levels.

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“The virus is out there. We’ve got three variants in Canada. There’s no way we can have a perfect system at this point,” he said. “All or nothing is my best understanding epidemiologically of a lockdown, and we were a long way from all or nothing.”

According to Bowman, the “underlying issue” is that people don’t stop moving around entirely, even with restrictions in place. In Ontario, for example, stay-at-home orders are non-enforceable. A person can be fined for breaking the rules, but they cannot be arrested or forced back into their homes.

“If you don’t do it right the first time, it’s hard to do it right the second, the third (and) the fourth,” he said.

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As the pandemic has progressed, Bowman said many provinces have gotten less clear with public messaging, and community spread is well past the point of individual contact tracing. The country has “rolled in and out” of so many different levels of restrictions, he worried it could cause too much confusion.

“As serious as the situation is, I’m not convinced the public even understands what the measures are right now because they’ve changed shape and form so many times,” he said, adding that provincial health authorities “should have dealt with this over a year ago.”

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“I didn’t even realize this is our third state of emergency and I follow this.”

Janice Gill, 35, who lives in Burlington, Ont., agreed.

“‘Confused’ would be a big word that comes to mind,” she said of her province’s new-old restrictions.

“Confused with understanding what the rules are, what’s open, what’s not open, who can get vaccinated, who can’t get vaccinated and I think maybe a little burnt out as well.”

— With files from the Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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