Justin Trudeau's response to COVID-19 poses big problem for Erin O'Toole, Jagmeet Singh, and Yves-François Blanchet

None of the Liberals' main rivals wants to criticize public-health officials, unlike some of their own traditional supporters

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      You see them in grocery stores all the time. Usually men and often over 40. Sometimes quite well-dressed, though there are a fair number of blue-collar ones as well. And they're not wearing masks.

      These are the folks who think that because they're double-vaccinated, they don't need to cover their noses and mouths, even where this is recommended, like in grocery stores.

      Or, alternatively, they haven't been vaccinated and they know that the survival rate for those with COVID-19 is very high if they're under the age of 65.

      To them, the big hullabaloo about COVID-19 is yet another representation of the nanny state. This is notwithstanding more than 632,000 deaths in America and 26,000 deaths in Canada that have been linked to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

      "Sure," they'll say, "the Delta variant is more contagious but it's not going to kill me."

      They blithely walk around grocery stores without their masks because it doesn't cross their mind that there might be cancer survivors or people with multiple sclerosis, diabetes, or a host of other conditions on the premises who might face a higher risk of dying because of their actions.

      As they stroll through the aisles, these maskless grocery shoppers don't give a damn about the immunocompromised. They don't give any thought to the reality that those with weakened immune systems don't benefit nearly as much as the rest of us from vaccinations against COVID-19. Or that people who are vaccinated can still contract COVID-19 and pass it along to others.

      They have no idea of the seething rage that some other customers are feeling toward them because of all this. Plus, anyone who's paying attention knows that a surge of cases among the unvaccinated has real potential to overrun intensive-care wards.

      Yet to some of these maskless shoppers, the death count from COVID-19 is simply "collateral damage".

      That's a phrase commonly used by defenders of the Vietnam War when they discussed its growing death count in the late 1960s. 

      To the COVID-19 minimizers, the deaths from the coronavirus are no different than the number of people who perish from the flu every year.

      These men—yes, they're usually men—think that those who are not likely to die from COVID-19 should be allowed to go about their lives in pre-pandemic ways. In their eyes, schools, restaurants, major sporting events, international travel, and the public transit system should function as they did before the pandemic. 

      This view is reflected in conservative national newspapers in Canada and the U.S., as well as on FOX News.

      Lockdowns of low-risk populations, in their view, are far more harmful. Why? Because they believe that it will lead to higher suicide rates, even though this hasn't been demonstrated by the data in Canada.

      The number of suicides actually fell significantly in the pandemic year of 2020 in Canada.

      But let's get real—when it comes to the hardline COVID-19 minimizers, we're not dealing with people who spend a hell of a lot of time poring over Statistics Canada data. Nor do they worry much about rising greenhouse-gas emissions, even though hundreds died in the recent B.C. heat wave.

      So why am I writing all of this?

      Because as Canada lurches toward a federal election, these people don't have a national political party with representation in the House of Commons that reflects their views.

      It may be the case in Alberta, where Premier Jason Kenney's provincial government is removing almost all of its public-health orders (and denying the magnitude of the climate crisis). Alberta can't be bothered to do contact-tracing of those who test positive.

      Naturally, this elevates the risk of people with COVID-19 riding the bus without a mask—which Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has decried as "insanity".

      In some American states, notably Florida and Texas, Republican governors are reflecting the views of the COVID-19 minimizers within their electorates.

      But across Canada, the federal Conservatives won't go down this road with COVID-19. It's too politically risky for them.

      So a significant number of right-of-centre Canadians who might ordinarily vote Conservative are going to be deeply disappointed in leader Erin O'Toole's policy responses to COVID-19.

      That helps Justin Trudeau's Liberals, especially if some of these Conservative-leaning voters drift to more fringe groups, like the People's Party of Canada. It's led by a man who refuses to take the COVID-19 vaccine and who engages in similar magical thinking when it comes to the climate breakdown.

      It doesn't take that many voters of a similar mindset to drive Conservative support down from its traditional level of 30 to 33 percent, thereby helping the Liberals secure a majority.

      NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has not raised questions about whether public-health officials have downplayed the significance of airborne COVID-19 transmission.

      NDP has a different dilemma

      The NDP also faces a conundrum with COVID-19. Some of its traditional voters feel that the federal and provincial governments aren't doing nearly enough.

      These voters are aware of the growing evidence that COVID-19 is airborne, and want more mask mandates in public spaces. They want more restrictions on flying. And they feel that people who disregard public-health orders should receive much harsher penalties.

      They think it's insane that most provincial governments, including the NDP regime in B.C., are not requiring masks in schools and postsecondary institutions this fall.

      But these voters are not hearing NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh getting too worked up about what's going to happen in the schools. He can slough this off as a "provincial issue".

      Singh is certainly not ripping into Premier John Horgan or B.C. NDP's health minister, Adrian Dix, for their government's continued refusal to bluntly declare that because COVID-19 is airborne, masks must be worn not only in schools, colleges, and universities, but also on the provincial ferry system.

      Moreover, Singh doesn't want to alienate airline workers by calling for more restrictions on flying, which is an area of federal jurisdiction.

      Similarly, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet is not likely to call out Quebec's premier, François Legault, for refusing to order masks or class bubbles in schools this fall. This is despite Legault coming under scathing criticism from some doctors.

      And with Blanchet hoping to win more seats in Montreal, which is home to Air Canada's head office in Montreal, don't expect the Bloc to call for more restrictions on flying.

      Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is not likely to pander to the far right by downplaying the health consequences of COVID-19.

      Leaders will focus on other wedge issues

      O'Toole, Singh, and Blanchet are, for the most part, lining up with public-health officials' pronouncements on COVID-19. This leaves little daylight between the three major opposition leaders and the Trudeau government.

      Instead, the opposition leaders will try to advance other wedge issues to lure voters into their camps in the election campaign.

      Expect O'Toole to talk up the federal deficit and whip up fears about China to get the COVID-19 minimizers to plug their noses and vote Conservative. But O'Toole's reluctance to embrace the Republicans' approach is going to make it far less likey that the hardcore minimizers will donate money to the party or volunteer their time to help elect candidates.

      Singh, on the other hand, will talk about the housing crisis, systemic racism (which includes boil-water advisories on Indigenous reserves), the climate breakdown, and income inequality. He's hoping that this might be sufficient to attract votes from those who are truly freaked out by what they see as governments' tepid response to the health crisis.

      Blanchet can be expected to focus on Quebec nationalism, environmental issues, and the benefits of keeping the Liberals in a minority in Parliament.

      But with the Delta variant spreading madly and the country in the midst of its fourth wave of COVID-19, this issue—rather than China, housing, the climate, austerity or income inequality—will likely be the key ballot-box issue. It's going to dominate the news cycle.

      Hordes of people will go into the polling booth asking themselves the following questions: 

      1. Did the Liberal government do a decent job of protecting me and my family during this unprecedented health crisis?

      2. Do we really want to change the government at a time like this?

      Trudeau's riding a wave of patriotism from the Summer Olympics. He's been throwing huge sums of money to individuals and businesses since the pandemic was declared.

      Under the current rules, some business owners believe that it's legal to defer sending out invoices to suppliers of goods and services for a month. That way, they can suppress quarterly revenues to qualify for the federal wage subsidy.

      Some companies that paid their executives huge bonuses and stock options as compensation also received federal wage subsidies.

      Trudeau has taken care of the business community, thank you very much, as well as freelance contractors who qualify for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit even if they wouldn't have qualified for employment insurance.

      That's going to help the Liberals when voters enter the ballot box, notwithstanding Trudeau's relatively low personal approval rating.

      Justin Trudeau's approval rating stands at about 40 percent, according to this chart produced by the Angus Reid Institute.

      Good times for incumbents

      Keep in mind that there have been five provincial and territorial elections since the pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020.

      In every case, the premier held onto his job, usually with more seats in the legislature after the election than before the vote was held.

      In B.C., Horgan's NDP won an unprecedented and historic landslide.

      Is there really any reason to think things will turn out differently for Justin Trudeau? Not likely. At least, not yet.