If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it is that deadly pandemics cannot be fought successfully on a piecemeal basis with each province or local authority going its own way, imposing its own control measures, or none at all.
The need for a national approach, a national strategy has been evident since the first wave began in March. The second wave has made the need blindingly obvious – even, one might hope, to premiers whose provinces and territories escaped the worst of the first wave, but who have learned from the second wave that no province, region or town is immune from the rampaging contagion.
The 13 premiers are not stupid people. They know what needs to be done. But they are stubborn, protective of their constitutional jurisdiction, and exceptionally sensitive to the shifting tides of electoral opinion. They can also be unwilling to admit that big brother Ottawa might ever know best, about anything.
To be fair, not all premiers are so extreme. Left to their own devices, the leaders of the smaller provinces would, of financial necessity, be more accommodating to national priorities. But when they are all assembled as the Council of the Federation (a rebranding of the traditional first ministers’ conferences), the small fry fall in line behind the three heavyweights: Quebec, Ontario and Alberta.
That’s the way it was last Thursday when the premiers met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a formal, if virtual, conclave. The year’s council chair, Quebec Premier Francois Legault, took the lead in bashing the federal government. All of the premiers, he declared, were “very disappointed” in Trudeau’s refusal to discuss a permanent, long-term transfer of federal funds for provincial health services.
At present, Ottawa sends $42-billion a year to the provinces ostensibly for health purposes, but without strings attached as to how they actually spend the money. The latest provincial demand would increase this federal outlay by $28-billion in the first year alone.
Premier Legault was overselling the provincial case when he told the press that the premiers were “very disappointed” by Trudeau’s reaction. Although none were jumping with joy, some, including British Columbia’s John Horgan and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, saw hope; McNeil went so far as to say he was “cautiously optimistic.”
Nor did Trudeau refuse to discuss long-term funding. He said he knew that Ottawa will need to increase the Canada Health Transfer – “We are going to do that” – and that he would be discussing it with the premiers. But he made two points. First, he would be insisting that additional transfers come with greater transparency to ensure that money transferred for health purposes is actually used for health and actually helps produce better health outcomes for the public.
Trudeau’s second point was that “getting through this pandemic” has to be the focus of all governments in Canada. The leadership role falls to the federal government. According to a CBC analysis, Ottawa is spending $952-million per day on COVID relief, distributing a total of $240-billion between March 13 and November 20. The bill will increase as the federal government takes on the full cost of purchasing and distributing vaccines for use by provincial health authorities.
There is no sense in waiting for the country to get through the pandemic. The remedial work must begin now, and long-term care homes have to be the urgent number one priority. It is intolerable that 80 per cent of the deaths from COVID-19 are occurring in LTC facilities. Provincial authorities have been unable to keep elderly residents safe. They have failed to enforce regulations, to conduct meaningful inspections, and to follow up when home operators and owners ignore orders to clean up their act.
Besides, even if the provinces willing to replace all the older homes that pack residents into multi-patient wards, they don’t have the billions it would take to finance such a massive undertaking.
A system that allows conditions to deteriorate to the point where provinces have to call in the Canadian Forces to clean homes and tend to the basic human needs of patients is a broken system. The buck has to stop somewhere. It is a national crisis. It is time Ottawa took charge.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].