André Picard has been Canada’s keenest interpreter of medical issues since he began his medical beat at the Globe & Mail in 1987. He recently wrote a column about the agonizing decisions each person needs to make as they try and do what’s right for their families while balancing their own basic needs, like attending funerals or whether or not kids should go back to school. iRun editor Ben Kaplan caught up with the Montreal-based Picard, an avid runner, to hear his take on the latest news.
Ben Kaplan: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Canada’s current state in the fight against COVID-19?
André Picard: I’m always cautiously optimistic, I guess. You have to remain hopeful if you want to keep doing this job, reporting on health.
BK: But in a nutshell?
AP: There are some good signs—but we have to be vigilant.
BK: Let’s start with the good signs. What are they?
AP: The numbers are coming down again.
BK: So why do we need to be vigilant?
AP: We’ve seen this before. The pessimistic side of me knows that we tend to be impatient and once that happens, the numbers jump up again.
BK: I think everybody wants this to end. So be specific. What can each of us do to finish this thing?
AP: The simple old stuff.
BK: Washing hands, distance.
AP: Yeah, it’s really simple, and wear a mask. Don’t gather in groups, and limit social contacts. The virus spreads by interactions, and so the less we interact, the less the virus spreads. It’s really the boring old stuff, but the problem is we just get tired of doing it.
BK: Some of it also is that there’s mixed messages. Like, we came down hard on politicians that travelled and yet, if we really didn’t want them to travel, why not make travel illegal?
AP: I do think there’s been lots of mixed messages which again means that people have to take personal responsibility, but I know what you mean. It doesn’t make sense for Air Canada to have flight sales to the Bahamas while we’re told to stay home.
BK: So what do we do?
AP: A lot of other countries have cracked down on travel. Of course it’s necessary for some goods to travel between countries and maybe it makes sense for some travel for business, but the travel for fun part? We shouldn’t be doing it and that message needs to be much clearer from the government, with stricter rules.
BK: It’s strange how a lot of things like whether to have a distanced beer with a friend, hold a race or take the kids to the park, become moral dilemmas.
AP: The simple most basic rule is to limit your contact with others. Don’t get in your car if you don’t have to. Don’t go to the Bahamas. Now, if your grandmother dies, do you have to go to the funeral?
BK: Do you?
AP: Maybe. My father-in-law did die and I did go to the funeral, but this was in the summer in Montreal with ten people spread out in masks in an auditorium when the cases were very low, but these are tough personal choices. I think rituals are important but they should be done as safely as possible.
BK: It’s funny to talk about rituals when we see 18,000 American football fans in the stadium watching the Green Bay Packers play against Tom Brady. How can the Americans do that?
BK: How can they justify it?
AP: I watched a Dallas game with 35,000 people in the stands, and that’s just crazy, especially since the virus in the US is like three or four times worse than in Canada.
BK: Part of me is jealous. I feel like Toronto is the only place in North America where our kids still aren’t in school and meanwhile, they’re drinking draft beers at football games in Florida!
AP: They’re just giving the virus a chance to spread. And the US numbers speak for themselves, how bad they are. Now the school question, that’s complex and interesting.
BK: Why’s that?
AP: To me, schools should stay open. We can’t stop life altogether and it’s not like if the schools are closed, the kids won’t gather. The big question is how do you best control the environment? The school question is really about harm reduction and there’s no perfect approach. Though I do think they got it right in Quebec.
BK: How so?
AP: The Premier said that the number one priority is opening the schools and that everything else is secondary.
BK: And so what did Quebec do?
AP: The lockdown was much more strict than the one in Ontario and we applied a curfew, but the schools are open. The communication was clear and the politician did what he said he would and the message was clear—all you could want from a politician.
BK: Can you foreshadow our next few weeks, next month?
AP: January, February and March are the single hardest part of the pandemic. But there’s hope on the horizon with vaccines. There’s hope. But the vaccines won’t be here this spring and if the numbers come down, there will be the temptation to open up too much, and with this new variant, the numbers could go through the roof.
BK: So we just have to make it to April?
AP: I think in April, we’ll start having serious vaccines available, especially in Eastern Canada. And when the weather warms up again, it’s easier to go outside.
BK: How freaked out should we be about this new variant?
AP: We knew this was coming. We knew there’d be changes and this new variant seems to spread more quickly, but we don’t really know the details yet and I think it’s in line with what we’d expect. I also think social distancing and masks work well against this new variant, so it all comes back to what I first said: we need to do the old boring things.
BK: I could deal with a curfew, but I really miss running with my group. When can do that again?
AP: Running together in a group, even outside, is best avoided until everyone in the group has two shots of the vaccine.
BK: Oh, man.
AP: It’s just the distance and the time spent together on a Sunday long run is susceptible for a spread. 30 seconds when you see someone in a park? No big deal. But 25 people going on a Sunday long run together is a bad idea. We’re not all hysterical now like we were back in March, when there was a fear of runners, and surfaces. We know it’s safe. But a lot of time spent with a stranger, even outdoors, is dangerous. You’re interacting with every person that they’ve interacted with.
BK: Will we be able to race again in the fall?
AP: It’s up in the air. I think by September, maybe we’ll have half the population vaccinated, but a race with 30,000 people? That won’t look good. I don’t think it’s going to happen this year.
BK: On that note of depression, how’s your own running going?
AP: I plod along—as always.
BK: Is running still good?
AP: There’s nothing quite like getting outside and going for a run or a walk.
BK: Thanks for your time, man. Always a pleasure. Can you tell iRun readers about your new book?
AP: It’s called Neglected No More and it’s coming out March 2. It’s about how to improve home care and treatment for the elderly.
BK: Feels timely.
AP: There’s a lot more we can do and it’s time for a change.