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Health minister encourages kindness, fresh air to manage COVID-19 stress

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OTTAWA — Patty Hajdu said she is worried about the toll that pandemic-related anxiety and isolation will take on the mental health of Canadians and is encouraging people to help themselves and others through the crisis with kindness and the great outdoors.

The federal health minister told the Senate Wednesday she was about to brief cabinet on some idea of how long Canadians might have to stay isolated from each other, knowing full well the longer this lasts, the more hits mental wellness is going to take.

“Some of our most hopeful scenarios, they are not necessarily what Canadians would like to hear,” she said. “This is not a matter of a couple of weeks. We’re talking about a couple of months.”

Hajdu said she lies awake at night worrying about kids whose parents are stressed out, people with addictions who can’t get to their treatment programs, or people who are already trying to manage a mental illness that this situation is exacerbating.

“It is something that preoccupies me,” she said.

Hajdu was in the upper chamber to answer questions from senators who were recalled to pass the government’s $107-billion emergency response bill for COVID-19, including income supports and investments in health care.

But Sen. Chantal Petitclerc asked Hajdu what the government is doing for mental health, something not explicitly mentioned in the bill.

“I wonder, in fact, if there is a plan for people to have access more readily, maybe, to help with mental health issues,” said Petitclerc.

“It is also very stressful. Some people experience stress, fear, anxiety, because they face many unknown factors in their future.”

Hajdu said the emergency bill is aimed at helping reduce some anxiety people are feeling after losing their jobs or seeing their wages crumble as more businesses slow down or are forced to close entirely.

But beyond that, she said the government is working with non-profit organizations to provide more support for people who she knows are scared of getting sick, losing their jobs or thinking about how they are going to pay the rent or buy groceries because their jobs are already gone.

“We are also, in the days to come, launching a virtual mental health tool that Canadians will be able to access for free that will help them at least be able to learn some skills that will help to reduce their anxiety and their fear,” she told the Senate.

But she said government won’t be able to help Canadians through this without help.

“This is why I also call on Canadians to be kind to one another,” said Hajdu, who along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a plea for kindness in almost every public appearance since the virus began to surge in Canada earlier this month.

“We’re all going to need a hand to get through it. The longer that we see social distancing going on the more severe the challenges we’ll have in terms of people’s mental health. It’s going to be on all of us as Canadians to reach out to people especially people that have no one in their lives.”

Hajdu said there are also some updates coming to the Health Canada website to help guide people on activities they can do while social distancing, and that she said, includes not staying indoors all day long.

“The best advice from a health perspective is to get outside to get fresh air if you are not ill,” she said.

If you are sick, or have been in close proximity to someone who is, stay inside, she said. But everyone else can and should go for a walk as long as they maintain a two-metre distance from anyone they aren’t already living with.

How long is two metres, Hajdu asked. About the length of an average hockey stick.

“Most Canadians know intuitively how long a hockey stick is,” she said. “That’s the distance you should be keeping between you and someone else that you’re walking with. Of course family members can walk closer if they’re asymptomatic and living together.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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Consider releasing some inmates to stem COVID-19 in prisons, minister requests

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OTTAWA — Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has asked the federal prison service and the parole board to look at early release for some offenders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

The government is committed to protecting inmates, correctional staff and the public given the unique risks the virus poses for prisons, said Mary-Liz Power, a spokeswoman for the minister.

“This pandemic continues to evolve and we have been clear that our response will as well,” she said Tuesday in a statement.

“Minister Blair has asked both the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada and the chair of the Parole Board of Canada to determine whether there are measures that could be taken to facilitate early release for certain offenders.”

Neither the Correctional Service nor the Parole Board had immediate comment on the minister’s request.

The prison service said Monday two inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 at Port-Cartier Institution, a maximum-security facility in Quebec — the first confirmed cases involving prisoners in a federal institution.

The service said nine employees at Port-Cartier had also tested positive for the virus.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which represents employees in 49 federal institutions, says the release of a few inmates would not stem the spread of COVID-19 in prison but would increase the risk for Canadians.

“The focus must be on changing routines in our institutions to respect social distancing and self-isolation directives to every extent possible,” the union said.

“Canada is in crisis, and its citizens are already dealing with a potentially deadly threat. It is irresponsible to introduce further threats into our communities.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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COVID-19

Amid medical-supplies scramble, pandemic highlights new perils to free trade

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WASHINGTON — “America First” rhetoric and disdain for free trade are old news in the Donald Trump era, but with countries in a life-or-death scramble to stockpile gowns, gloves, masks and ventilators, protectionism these days isn’t such a dirty word.

Even an ardent free trader like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau let slip an interesting — and vaguely isolationist — turn of phrase Tuesday as he laid out Canada’s efforts to procure scarce personal protective equipment for the country’s health workers.

“We understand that countries around the world are taking their own approaches,” Trudeau said during his daily doorstep briefing. “We will continue to co-ordinate as much as possible, but every step of the way our priority will be ensuring that Canada is able to take care of its own.”

No one would suggest, even in the grips of a life-changing pandemic, that Trudeau’s Liberal government is losing its religion when it comes to globalization. But trade experts agree that free trade, which has already been under siege in the U.S. and elsewhere, could well emerge from the COVID-19 outbreak on life support, if it manages to survive at all.

The promise of free trade is that if people can buy and sell without obstacles at national borders, production will shift to where it’s most efficient. But that also means that countries will come to rely on foreign imports for a lot of their goods while their own industries focus on exporting whatever products they’re best at making.

“Everybody is almost sort of retrenching to a nationalism that runs contrary to what the whole spirit of globalization and trade liberalization has traditionally been about,” said Adam Taylor, a one-time adviser to the previous Conservative government who now heads up Export Action Global, an international trade consulting firm.

“The sad reality is … whether it’s a recession or other events that affect the globe, you often see less of a commitment to free and open trade, and more of a commitment to nationalism or creating a nationalist economy — and that’s a real worry for free-traders.”

Indeed, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, a protectionist who made life difficult for Canada during the 13-month effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout 2018, sounded in his element Monday during an online meeting of G20 trade ministers.

“Unfortunately, like others, we are learning in this crisis that over-dependence on other countries as a source of cheap medical products and supplies has created a strategic vulnerability to our economy,” Lighthizer said.

“Let us not make long-term decisions in the midst of a crisis. I suggest that we should get through this together, gather all the information we can, and then make decisions for the future to ensure that these things don’t happen to the world again.”

The crisis of COVID-19, which by Tuesday had sickened nearly 850,000 around the world and killed more than 41,000, including 3,600 in the U.S. and 95 in Canada, brings to mind the old adage about nothing focusing the mind like a hanging at dawn.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards warned that New Orleans would be out of ventilators by the weekend and was dangerously low on hospital beds. Michigan, too, says it needs upwards of 10,000 more breathing machines. Israel is supplementing its supply by turning them out from a plant that once produced missiles.

“We cannot remain dependent on procurement from other countries,” Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement.

Finding enough ventilators in the U.S. is “like being on eBay, with 50 other states bidding — that’s literally what we’re doing,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose description of U.S. states and the Federal Emergency Management Agency working at cross-purposes made the whole exercise sound like a scene from a Keystone Kops film.

“And then FEMA gets involved, and FEMA starts bidding, and now FEMA is bidding on top of the 50. So FEMA is driving up the price,” he said, incredulous.

“What sense does this make?”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, whose state is also running dangerously low, issued an order Tuesday requiring ventilator manufacturers, as well as suppliers, retailers and hospitals to provide a weekly inventory to allow the government to better keep track.

“We never want to be in a position where we can’t buy very important medical equipment in this country,” DeWine tweeted last week. “We have to source this equipment in this country.”

Dan Ujczo, an international trade lawyer based in Columbus, Ohio, said the pandemic is unlikely to mean the end of free trade in North America, given just how interconnected and symbiotic Canada and the U.S. have become. But what it is doing is shining another ray of “disinfecting sunlight” on the complex nature of the trade ties between the two, and the problems they can create.

“I don’t think people fully understood how interconnected our businesses were and the pro free-trade folks were looking at that with optimism — you know, ‘See how connected we are,’ ” Ujczo said in an interview.

Others, however, have come to see disadvantages — and the advent of COVID-19, he said, will advance an awakening in the U.S. that has only accelerated with the election of Donald Trump.

“In the great rebalancing that we’re in right now, this has tipped the scales toward more protectionism. Where there is some optimism, I think, is there’s going to be a realization we can’t do it completely alone. No country can do it completely alone.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.

— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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april, 2020

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