by Enzo DiMatteo
It’s been a time of anxiety and reflection since Canadians were asked to isolate two weeks ago to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Hopefully, we’ve learned something about ourselves—because we’re about to learn a lot more about our collective will in the days to come as we begin to see the arrival of the next wave of cases health officials have been warning us about. It’s crunch time, Canada.
In Ontario, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose by more than 200 on Sunday. On Monday, there were 351 more cases. We should expect the number of new cases to double (and keep doubling) in the days to come. That’s happened everywhere else the virus has struck and it’s beginning to happen here. As of March 29, the results of 8,690 tests were still pending in Ontario with thousands more to come. A simple extrapolation of the disease rates should tell us where this may be headed. Where the coronavirus curve will top out in Canada only time will tell.
We’re probably a little further ahead of the virus than other countries (fingers crossed). Canadian officials have been modelling what to expect and preparing for the worst-case scenario. Comparisons have been made to Italy, whose demographics are similar to ours and whose health-care system is similarly advanced. And we all know what’s happening there.
But Italy’s response was also weighed down by its notoriously divisive politics. In the end, squabbling and the resulting slow reaction left Italian officials scrambling. The entire Lombardy region, an area with some 16 million people, had to be quarantined. As an example of how to manage a crisis, the Italian job is not the best to emulate. However, as an example of how politics can quickly upend the best-laid plans, it should be a sober lesson.
We’re beginning to see the politics of the pandemic threatening to get in the way of a unified response here in Canada. Angus Reid released a poll Monday showing that 64 percent of a subgroup of respondents who believe the pandemic is "overblown" voted for the Conservatives in the last federal election. To be sure, this past week the Conservatives threatened to delay the passage of the federal government’s COVID-19 aid package. Just when it looked like coronavirus was bringing us together, politicians were pulling us apart.
The sticking point? A clause in the legislation that would have allowed the Liberal cabinet to make financial decisions without the approval of Parliament. The Cons called the move a power grab. The Libs called it necessary to react to a rapidly evolving situation. Take your pick.
The controversy provided further evidence that the Liberals are not interested in governing as a minority as long as they can rely on the Bloc’s support in the House. For the Conservatives, the dust-up provided a fundraising opportunity and some much-needed media exposure—but also reason for some sober second thought.
All of a sudden, Trudeau’s approval ratings are going up and those ideas of a quick election are going out the window. Nothing like a crisis to galvanize public opinion. Now that the Conservative party leadership race has been indefinitely delayed because of coronavirus, the party finds itself sidelined.
Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer tried to turn up the temperature on the government’s COVID-19 response when news surfaced last week that Canada had sent a shipment of medical protective equipment and masks to China. That one got the party’s army on social media roused. But China has since returned the favour, shipping more equipment our way.
A global crisis requires a global response, and where supply chains are concerned, we can’t rely on our largest trading partner to the south for all our needs if we’re going to get through this. After all, the U.S. is about to station troops at the border if, that is, we’re to believe some of the headline-chasers in the mainstream media.
That story, based on a comment by President Donald Trump about “irregular crossers”—and (supposedly) illegal steel imports from China entering the U.S. through Canada—rated as news for two days. Again, it was great fodder for Make Canada Great Again–types on social media and #TrudeauMustGo started trending, just like old times.
On Sunday, the social media narrative that Trudeau is faking his need to self-isolate was making news. At his news briefing that day, the PM was asked when he would be getting back to his office on Parliament Hill now that his wife Sophie has been cleared of COVID-19 symptoms. The message implicit in that one is that the PM could be getting more work done.
We’re fighting two pandemics, it seems, the other one being ignorance.
In the media, there’s a fine line being walked right now between holding the government accountable and getting people the information they need without scaring the fuck out of them to the point of paralysis.
Some Ottawa political observers have offered that the Libs haven’t been clear enough with Canadians. More to the point, how can we trust a government with our civil liberties—which we may have to do should this crisis get worse—if we can’t trust them not to try and turn a pandemic to political advantage?
It’s a fair question. But managing the logistics of delivering help to those who need it is daunting enough. (Contrary to popular opinion, it can’t just be done with the push of a button.) Managing the fears and expectations of 37 million Canadians is an even more delicate matter.
We’ve been lucky so far. By and large, the static has been kept to a minimum. Because the danger is that people will stop listening and playing by the rules. Hopefully, we’re better than that and we don’t have to do this all over again next year. The rising numbers tell us it’s no time for complacency.