That national cohesion, the willingness of Canadians to work together, to endure inconvenience and hardship to bring COVID-19 under control during the pandemic’s first wave, no longer exists as the second wave rages across the land, like a wildfire in a tinder-dry forest.
The pleas from scientists and public health officials – to isolate at home and venture forth only for essential purposes, to wear masks and maintain social distances when doing so – that worked to a quite astonishing degree in the spring are falling on too many deaf ears today.
Toronto-area highways that were virtually deserted at the height of the first wave are full again. In the second wave “red zone” where I live, shopping centre parking lots that were two-thirds empty last spring are two-thirds full today. Big box stores are booming (while small retailers are suffering).
What happened to the national cohesion? A lot of it is due to simple COVID fatigue. Some of it is the result of conflicting messages from provincial leaders whose governments are responsible for pandemic control within their borders. The premiers know people should stay at home and they hope they will, but there is a limit to the amount of electoral capital they are prepared to risk by translating pleas into enforcement. They are also acutely aware of the political clout of small and independent businesses; that awareness makes some of them transparently sympathetic to the cries for relief from the dress shop in the mall, the pub on the corner and the flower shop down the street.
In Ontario, out-of-control infection rates compelled Premier Doug Ford to impose what he calls a “lockdown,” although it is not a complete one, in the city of Toronto and in Peel Region to the west. But he has not locked down York Region to the north. Steeles Avenue is the city’s northern boundary. Residents in the north end of Toronto are supposed to stay home and emerge only for essentials. But if they cross Steeles, they are free to shop till they drop, so to speak.
Some of the problem resides in Ottawa. In the beginning, most Canadians listened to the Prime Minister and accepted the need to adjust their behaviour. The acceptance was always provisional. The public would go along as long as the measures they took could be seen to be working, and as long as provincial governments and federal political parties were on side.
It was remarkable that the federal parties sang from the same song sheet as long as they did. It was too good to last, and it hasn’t. The opposition parties have torn up their blank cheque. Where previously they accepted Justin Trudeau’s leadership, they now challenge his government’s competence to manage the pandemic. They are demanding that the Liberals account for just about every dollar spent and every contract awarded in the name of COVID relief.
The acquisition and distribution of vaccine is a highly charged issue. The government has committed billions to purchase vaccines from various international suppliers. But the Conservatives, sensing they have a hot-button issue, are enthusiastically hammering the Liberals.
Why will Canada, as it appears, have to line up behind the United States, Germany, Britain and other countries that have facilities to manufacture vaccines? Won’t those countries insist on looking after their own people first? Canada once had a manufacturing capacity, so why have Liberals not replaced it? (This being a reference to the famous Connaught Laboratories in Toronto where insulin was discovered in 1921. It was a Crown corporation when it was privatized by the Mulroney Conservative government in 1986, then sold off and dismantled. No subsequent government, Liberal or Conservative, has bothered to replace it.)
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and his mates profess to be in high dudgeon. When, they demand, will Canada get its first doses? How many doses will there be? Who will decide who gets them? How, and how quickly, will they be distributed?
The Liberals’ responses keep fanning suspicions that something is not quite right. For a leader who claims to be wedded to transparency, Justin Trudeau is a master of half-answers, his ministers of empty evasions. So far, the Prime Minister will not say when vaccines will arrive, but he maintains most Canadians will be able to be vaccinated by September. The country’s deputy chief public health officer, however, suggests December might be more realistic.
Meanwhile, the second wave rages on. Ontario and Quebec continue to set daily records for new infections; Alberta, of all places, had more active cases last week than any other province; British Columbia and Manitoba are swamped, and the Atlantic Bubble has burst. And once again, residents of long-term care homes, where 7,000 Canadians died of COVID-19 between March and August, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
Last week, I suggested the time had come for the federal government to take over command of war on COVID from the provincial governments by invoking the never-used Emergencies Act of 1988 – this for a statutory period of 90 days (renewable). But there could be catch. In order to employ the act, the government must within seven days place a motion of confirmation before Parliament. If the motion fails, the emergency powers must be withdrawn.
Given today’s mood in the country and in Parliament, I wouldn’t bet on its safe passage.
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].