Monday, 30 March 2020


Guest Post by PlanetNL
PlanetNL29: Courting Disaster With Half-Measured Hypocrisy Against COVID-19

This province has suffered plenty from political failure in the past decade plus.  We don’t need COVID-19 to turn out to be the next major disaster but the present administration seems, as usual, unable to calculate the risks.  The issue is that the necessity for physical distancing and the shelter-in-place concept needs a very high rate of participation to succeed but the government has left a mile-wide loophole for “essential” businesses to keep operating that is placing many communities and the entire province at great risk.

The past week has seen a considerable spike in positive cases in the province, across Canada and around the world.  Social or physical distancing, frequently mandated and enforced, has been the consensus best measure for flattening the curve and hopefully snuffing the virus out or at least pushing the number of hospitalization cases down to a manageable number. 

For those with an hour to spare who are looking for a great piece of analysis on how this works, check out this substantial piece of work combining the evidence of numerous global research efforts prepared by Tomas Pueyo titled “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance, What the Next 18 Months Can Look Like, if Leaders Buy Us Time” published on March 19.

For those with 5 minutes, look at this story from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website published on March 25 titled “Data Shows Coronavirus Can Only Be Controlled if 8 out of 10 Australians Stay Home.”  The study cited indicates 90% would shorten the period of time needed in isolation but it demonstratively warned that falling to 70% participation would result in exponential growth of infection.  70% would be a dismal failure.

Here at home, our authorities are pleading for “everyone” to obey the physical distancing requirements.  On Saturday, Dr. Fitzgerald made a really big deal of the first definite case of community transmission and pointed straight to the necessity for distancing.  Moments later, Premier Ball stated that our province has the highest rate of infection in the country, second only to Quebec.  Government even issued an amber alert style text to everyone at 4pm for out of province travellers to completely isolate for 14 days. 

Their message is not difficult to comprehend but it does not reconcile with their policies.  The science is clearly pointing toward needing massive compliance with strict isolation practices such as the Australian study recommending at least 80% of the population should stay at home, however, our administration is allowing far too many businesses to operate under the guise of being “essential” and as a result the percentage of people truly practicing effective distancing is certain to be well below 80%.  In accepting the assumption that each and every one of those businesses are able to implement safe work practices that effectively mitigate the virus hazard is a terrible technicolour dream for our local leaders to be having in what may be the greatest period of social crisis many of us may ever experience.  Their moral hazard runs the high risk of costing lives.

The social distancing guideline of avoiding people by 2 meters is sound for irregular encounters with people.  For someone who is isolating but has to go to a grocery store or pharmacy or has other brief encounters just a few times per week, a few seconds or minutes at a time, the risk of transmission should indeed be greatly reduced.  However, for those people who have to work together all day long, 5 days a week, particularly in very physically demanding jobs, or where there are unavoidable common areas, any assumption that virus transmission is highly unlikely seems stunningly unfounded. 

There is substantial activity ongoing within the province that falls into this latter category.  They aren't in the business of building ventilators or making N95 masks either which would certainly qualify them as essential.  Some of them are actually using up tremendous supplies of those masks daily though.  Our leaders are surely aware of these valuable resources that may be very hard to get in a few short weeks when they could be so very badly needed in the health care and first responder sectors.

The heavy industrial firms in the province have hundreds of people gathering up on sites daily.  They are making raw materials for end products whose demand has fallen off our strange new economically flattened earth. How essential a service is that to the public of this province?  Does their work enhance our health care sector in any way or does it pose a major health care risk where workers may well spread the virus among themselves, their families, the public at large and eventually among health care workers? 

Likewise, there are many commercial construction firms all pressing on with their contracts.  Are they building hospitals or critically needed infrastructure that means the difference to saving lives in the next few months?  None that we know of. 

Virtually all such activity is enabling two major risks that will lead to failure in this province.  First, there are a great number of work sites threatening to become breakouts of virus transmission.  Second, the substantial number of workers being accommodated through the cavernous loophole definition of essential business is keeping the numbers of people observing serious distancing and isolation at far below the 80% level necessary for success.

The target ratio also needs to be looked at carefully on a community by community basis, not simply averaged across the entire province either.  There are several communities where there is likely tremendous hazard brewing and the curtailment of industrial and construction activity could make a vital difference.   

The ratio is probably not being met in the St. John’s metro area where there is the highest number of cases.  Metro has the greatest number of truly essential public service workers as well, especially among health care and first responders who we need to do the most to protect the public.  The metro area is likely home to the greatest amount of construction activity and plenty of sizeable industrial service shops that when accounted for collectively may make a critical difference in reaching the target ratio and for eliminating dangerous gatherings of people.

How about in our several industrial areas?  Corner Brook with the paper mill and its many related service businesses for example.  How long do these areas want to roll the dice?  Just before deadline to submit this article on Sunday night, let’s give some credit to North Atlantic Refining for acting to reduce their operating and community risk.  More need to follow in their footsteps.

In Labrador West, the situation is probably the worst in the province as both major ironmines continue operating.  Their large direct and contractor work forces surely put the ratio far below the target 8 out of 10.  Add to that, this is a very remote area with one small hospital that is normally taxed while providing regular services.  A community outbreak in such an isolated area would be particularly disastrous as hospital staff and resources are in limited supply and transporting patients out may prove very difficult if not unadvisable for patients in respiratory failure.

Making the news rounds on Sunday is another major development that businesses should immediately consider.  In this province and across Canada those getting COVID-19 are tending to include far more younger people than was anticipated, in particular working age people between 30 to 60. 

Similar data from Iceland shows the peak there is in the 40-49 age group and that half of those tested positive have no symptoms.  The articles linked here also show evidence that strong isolation policies work to eliminate the virus. See STUDY: YES, HALF OF CORONAVIRUS CARRIERS SHOW NO SYMPTOMS  and EVERYONE IN ICELAND CAN GET TESTED FOR THE CORONAVIRUS. HERE'S HOW THE RESULTS COULD HELP ALL OF USThis information dramatically heightens the level of risk being knowingly taken by these firms.  All working age people are definitely at risk and the number of asymptomatic people who may be spreading the virus is twice as high as diagnostic data may be showing.

The construction firms and heavy industries are likely placing great weight on their sales contracts and the fear of costly penalties that might arise if they choose to implement a production shutdown.  All of these contracts typically contain a Force Majeure clause that would remove their liability for penalties IF AND WHEN an authority having jurisdiction demands them to cease normal operations and go into a stand down.

If a viral breakout occurs in one of these operations, the legal consequence could be enormous in cost and years of litigation.  It's likely these same firms are starting to see they are walking a very high-risk tightrope balancing the danger of the virus vs the cost of trying to meet their contractual obligations.  Many senior managers may be paralyzed with fear and would prefer a clear and firm directive from government to shut down as this would at least give them the ability to claim Force Majeure on their contracts rather than risk the wrath of their global executives.

If Government is waiting on those businesses to throw in the towel, it will be making a cardinal mistake of waiting too long.  It's high time Government orders the shut down that is needed to protect more workers, protect the remainder of the public and even to protect businesses from their own procrastination.  By delaying the order, Government is endandering public health and potentially endangering the future of some of these firms if they should suffer an outbreak.

The Premier and his senior advisors need to make a decision.  Either they are all in and will drastically amend the definition of essential business or they are committed to wilful blindness by continuing the way it is.  There is no safe middle ground.  What will it be?  Can they finally see the risk and come to the correct conclusion today?
* Following submission of this piece, the North Atlantic Refinery at Come By Chance announced that the facility will be shutting down while officials deal with the Covid-19  pandemic.