I have been quite proud of the NWT and our co-ordinated and aggressive response to the Covid-19 crisis. The NWT was among the first jurisdictions in Canada to close its borders, to institute mandatory 14-day self-isolation measures, and to effectively promote “physical distancing” as a preventative measure.
While certainly the NWT has benefited from its remoteness from southern urban centers where the coronavirus first hit in Canada, there is no doubt these measures have been instrumental to containing Covid-19 to five cases, without any increase in the past two weeks and with no community transmission.
To date, the Government of the NWT has acted with “speed, not perfection,” as recommended by Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of World Health Organization’s emergencies program. In doing so, the GNWT has given itself extraordinary powers to institute rapid, extreme measures to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the territory.
A dual March 24 declaration of a state of emergency by Premier Cochrane and a public health emergency by Minister of Health and Social Services Thom has just been extended for the second time, now until the end of April. We are being told the expect these measures to remain in place “indefinitely.”
These emergency declarations bring with them extraordinary limitations on the rights and freedoms of the people of the NWT. Inside gatherings of friends and family are now illegal, and children are barred from playing in playgrounds. Local businesses are mostly shuttered, many which will never rise again. Authorities can now enter homes without warrant if they believe there is cause to do so.
A hastily-assembled and ominously-named “compliance and enforcement task force” has been created to monitor conformity. Minister Thom has been quoted as saying “We’re coming for you” to those who might disobey. Normal human interaction and enterprise has now been effectively criminalized.
These restrictions have been necessary in the face of this pandemic – I don’t believe many would dispute this. However, extraordinary restrictions on our rights and freedoms should only ever to be used temporarily and as a last resort. They should never become the “new normal”. The latest messaging from our top officials has largely been “get used to it.” We should absolutely NEVER get used to it.
I hope that our responsible officials are planning for how they will ramp down these extreme restrictions as soon as safely possible. To date the people of the NWT have largely been kept in the dark on what such plans might be. We don’t know what milestones would have to be achieved to consider a ramp down, and we don’t know how the easing of restrictions might be staged.
There should be much better public communication of these types of considerations, however preliminary plans might be.
Better articulation of ramp down plans will become especially important over the next couple of weeks if there continue to be no new Covid-19 cases and no community transmission in the territory. Will there be opportunities to relax restrictions within the territory while maintaining strict control of our border to further prevent Covid-19 from coming here? Will the availability of rapid testing be a factor in allowing restriction easement?
These are things that we don’t know, and there should be more clarity on this from our responsible officials. I expect that the people of the NWT will tolerate the restrictions currently in place if there is a clear vision for how these restrictions may be lifted at the earliest opportunity.
With spring weather coming we will all want to do the things that we Northerners love to do. Things like sharing a cookout with extended family, kicking a ball around on the playground with friends, and camping in our many parks. If we can do these things safely without fear of shaming and penalty, we must be able to.