Living in a Bubble (that no one should burst)

View of the Confederation Bridge from Borden, PEI. From The Guardian.

COVID-19 has taken a wicked toll on our way of life, our economy, and (most peculiarly) our perceptions of time. It is hard to believe that we have spent more than half a year at a distance from the things that we take for granted such as house parties, movie theatres, public transit, and family gatherings. Sacrificing these things feels costly in the short run, but it has helped flatten the curve in a number of jurisdictions and given researchers time to develop vaccine candidates.

Six months ago yesterday, my partner and I began sheltering with her family in rural Prince Edward Island after we hastily left my studies in the UK. Although it still feels like yesterday since we arrived on that snowy night to begin our self-isolation, I am happy to say that I have grown accustomed to life in Atlantic Canada. In recent months, I have become deeply appreciative of the measures taken by Atlantic governments to bring COVID-19 numbers down to remarkable low levels.

According to CBC News, the COVID numbers for the Atlantic provinces on September 26 are as follows:

Although there has been a slight uptick in cases in New Brunswick, the Atlantic COVID numbers pale in comparison to those observed in Canada’s “Big Four” provinces:

There is a significant difference between the case numbers in both tables. But at the same time, there’s a limitation to comparing regions along case number lines because Atlantic Canada simply does not have the population base that would ever produce outbreaks like those observed to the west. To an extent, that is a valid point. Atlantic Canada has a collective 2.5 million residents while Alberta (the smallest of the Big Four provinces) has well over 4 million. This means that observations of Atlantic case numbers, while impressive at first glance, need to be scaled for population sizes.

But even then, population criticisms quickly lose their punch when cases are examined on a per capita basis. When looking at case and death totals per million residents, it is clear that Atlantic Canada has led the way in keeping COVID numbers down. Proportionally, the region has had six-fold fewer cases than the Big Four, and nine times fewer deaths. Using a per capita scale, we can effectively rule out Atlantic Canada’s small population as the determinant for the region’s COVID achievements.

Much of this success is due to the Atlantic Bubble — a coordinated strategy by the four Atlantic provinces to facilitate free movement for individuals who have been in the region for at least two weeks. With some exceptions (related to essential work, academic study, and compassionate care), it is only possible to enter the Bubble if you are a resident or part of their immediate family. I only managed to get in because I arrived before the travel restrictions were imposed, but I am in the process of applying for my PEI resident status.

The Bubble has allowed for some intra-Atlantic tourism without the fear of outbreaks from other provinces and countries. In addition to preventing the spread of COVID-19 by way of cottagers from Ontario and Quebec, the Bubble has proved to be exceptionally popular with Atlantic residents. A Narrative Research poll in August showed that 77% of Atlantic Canadians oppose opening the region up to quarantine-free travel. Atlantic premiers have also ruled out joining a “Canadian Bubble” as daily cases continue to rise nationally.

In response to the successes of the Atlantic Bubble, there have been a number of op-eds calling for the Bubble to be burst. Some have suggested that barring non-Atlantic travelers from the region represents an overreach by provincial authorities. The Newfoundland and Labrador Government was sued over its travel restrictions, but the province’s supreme court upheld the policy. Despite the backing of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the case lost because it was ruled that violating Section 6 (Mobility Rights) of the Charter is justified in provincial efforts to crack down on COVID.

Other arguments against the Atlantic Bubble have focused on the long-term economic and mental health impacts of such travel restrictions. It is difficult to ignore the drastic decline in Atlantic tourism from outside the region; however, policymakers in these provinces have prioritized the prevention of community spread at all costs — even if it meant a lackluster summer for maritime tourism.

Atlantic Canada simply does not have the capacity to withstand major outbreaks to the same extent as the Big Four provinces. For example, PEI had fewer than 250 ICU beds at the start of the pandemic. Given that the province already has one of the oldest populations in Canada, public health officials expressed concerns that the Island would run out of beds by mid-May if no controls were imposed. Additionally, PEI welcomes over a million tourists annually. Given that tourism more than quadruples PEI’s population during normal tourist seasons, the risks of community spread and ICU bed shortages would be amplified. Bursting the bubble could serve as the catalyst for a public health meltdown in Canada’s smallest province.

Much in the same way that reopening the US border would hinder Canada’s national pandemic response, opening the Atlantic Bubble to other mainland provinces could undermine the region’s successful approach. As someone who has felt exhausted and discouraged by the lack of employment and proximity to my family, I can relate with critics who are voicing their concerns about the impact on the economy and mental health. I would be lying if I said that last few months have not felt somewhat isolating without my family nearby. It can be discouraging to think about my parents and brother in Ottawa because I have not seen them for almost a year and probably will not see them until Christmas.

But remarkably, my parents have become strong supporters of the Atlantic Bubble. They see the region as setting the standard for Canada as they brace for Ontario’s second wave back home. And just as time has passed almost seamlessly since I arrived in the Maritimes six months ago, it will feel like no time until I see them again.

MSc graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) | Interests include Canadian and UK politics, transit, and health policy

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