Without a scintilla of doubt, to use an old Joe Ghiz expression from long ago, Islanders are growing tired of the self-isolation imposed upon them by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shrinking of our physical world.
After two months of sitting on the hill in Hunter River, as a vulnerable citizen with underlying health conditions, I am getting a little shack wacky. My usual trips to hardware stores, gardening centres and takeout restaurants are on hold, and I am anxious to go somewhere, anywhere, and most importantly feel safe enough to visit with family.
Our public health officials have now begun a slow, phased approach to lifting current restrictions and reopening the Island. But we need to proceed cautiously.
Some believe that Island life will return to normal soon, however I fear that full social and economic restoration is a long way off. A safe and effective vaccine will not be available for about a year, and therapeutic treatments don’t exist. Moreover, as the esteemed Dr. Anthony Fauci has reminded all of us, echoed by our own Dr. Heather Morrison, the virus will determine when restrictions should be lifted, not our frustration and pent up need to be normal or complete again.
This has been miserable business, and while COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the Island mercifully have been low, our social and economic losses have been significant.
As a small island province, our borders and entry points are relatively easy to manage, and certainly this has contributed greatly to our low infection rate, coupled with the fact that we don’t have a congested urban environment.
Nevertheless, it took courage and good sense to put in place the border restrictions at Confederation Bridge, and the Charlottetown Airport, and essentially sacrifice the 2020 tourism season, so that Island residents can be safe and protected from the spread of COVID-19.
Major public events dependent upon tourism like the Charlottetown Festival and Cavendish Beach Festival have been cancelled. And although the Charlottetown Port Authority is still clinging to a hope that cruise ships will visit the harbour this summer, we don’t want or need them right now. One of my outrageous relatives up west refers to it as ‘fridge magnet’ tourism because that’s about all most cruise ship passengers buy.
Generally speaking, the provincial government and especially the professional leadership of Dr. Morrison and her team, deserve our thanks for continuing to guide us through the most serious public health crisis of our lifetime. Timely decisions have been taken, restrictions enforced firmly, and except for the Minister of Health and Wellness who continues to be missing in action, ministers have performed responsibly and admirably.
The immediate public health issue for Dr. Morrison and government is to what degree travel restrictions between neighboring provinces should be relaxed.
For as long as the bridge, and airport, and eastern ferry service are restricted to essential traffic only, then Prince Edward Island has a kind of geographic immunity. However, if and when those controls are removed and there is an inflow of travellers from other provinces, and possibly American states, where COVID-19 infection rates are much higher, our fortunes could change quickly.
The Island’s relatively small health care system might easily be overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, and any success we have had over the past few months in containing the virus wiped away.
I encourage Premier Dennis King and the government to be prudent and serious about all of this. This is no time to be silly, to worry about high school proms, or to pander to certain interest groups. Why shooting ranges are now allowable activities defies logic.
This virus is also a great social leveller. It is a potential threat to everyone, regardless of their economic status, and yet it is the working poor and those on the margins who suffer most as they do in any crisis. For when there is hunger, the poor are hungrier. When it is cold, the poor are colder. And when there is rain, the poor get wetter.
I was disappointed to hear our Premier chime in with his national Conservative party leader, in asking that the federal government’s two emergency support programs be changed, so that students and other low income Islanders will be encouraged to go back into the workplace, rather than remain safe at home.
All of us want our small local businesses, including restaurants and retail outlets, to staff up and reopen when it is safe to do so.
But safety is the operative word both for employees and customers.
Meantime, Islanders receiving support from the federal emergency programs need to pay their rent and buy groceries and keep themselves healthy.
Our Island geography has afforded us a unique advantage during this pandemic, much as it has Newfoundland, and I urge Premier King and government to continue to bar the door.
We will be out of the proverbial woods eventually, and most of what we enjoy about the Island will still exist. But there will be no returning to the way it was. Get ready for Island life 2.0.