Could a borderless pandemic drive a surge in 'Canada-first' isolationism?

The recent furor over a February shipment of medical supplies to China's COVID-19 hot zone suggests the pandemic is going to drive political tensions over Canada's international commitments for years to come.

A Canadian shipment of emergency supplies to China was uncontroversial — until the virus came here

A nurse wears the protective clothing used when treating patients with atypical pneumonia (SARS) outside the door of a quarantined patient diagnosed with the illness in a ward at Sunnybrook and Women's Hospital in Toronto on March 17, 2003. (Kevin Frayer/CP)

"At the end of the day," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland remarked this week, "the reality of a global pandemic is that it is global."

Three weeks ago, Health Minister Patty Hajdu made a similar argument. "A virus knows no borders," she said.

The coronavirus pandemic is an object lesson in interconnectedness: what started as a problem in one city in China now threatens lives in every country on Earth.

Workers arrange beds in a convention centre converted into a temporary hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province Feb. 4, 2020. (Chinatopix/The Associated Press)

But the virus also has made us newly concerned about our own borders and our own national welfare — in fact, it has pushed governments to do the sorts of things that maybe only the most wild-eyed nationalists would have dreamed of before now.

Navigating that tension poses a significant challenge to leaders, and it may keep doing that for many months or years to come.

This week's flare-up of the nationalist-versus-globalist debate concerned the federal government's decision to send a shipment of medical supplies to China in February.

Uncontroversial — until now

If anyone was concerned about that decision at the time, they were very quiet about it. The shipment apparently was never raised in the House of Commons. Around the same time, Chinese authorities reported that 21 other countries had donated supplies, including Germany, Britain, France and Australia.

Such aid isn't unprecedented. In 2014, Canada sent assistance to West Africa to deal with an outbreak of Ebola.

"You're in a war against a virus like this, you've got frontline troops who are fighting this thing and trying to slow and prevent its movement, you do everything possible to make sure that they're going to be successful," said Bruce Aylward, the Canadian epidemiologist who led the World Health Organization's efforts in China.

"That's how you fight these things. You fight them on the front line. You don't keep your powder dry in something like this."

But as reports emerge of Canadian doctors and nurses rationing personal protective equipment, critics are questioning the wisdom of sending supplies abroad.

A ripe political target

In a statement on Thursday, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the February shipment was "outrageous."

The decision to send that shipment to China is an inviting political target now. But it's not actually clear that there is any connection between what happened in February and any problems with domestic pandemic response now. If there are concerns at the local level, it has not been demonstrated that those issues can be traced to any problems at the federal level.

According to a federal government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, "the donation did not affect our preparedness efforts. Requests from provinces and territories have been coming in, and we've been responding to them from the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile on a case-by-case basis."

As first reported by CTV on Thursday, the Canadian government is expecting that shipments of badly needed pandemic supplies from China to Canada — both those already received and those offered — will exceed what Canada shipped out.

Medics take care of a patient infected with the novel coronavirus upon his arrival from Italy at the University hospital in Dresden, Germany, March 26, 2020. (Matthias Rietschel/The Associated Press)

Any analysis of the sequence of events also has to consider whether the assistance provided to China ultimately improved the situation for Canada — whether that equipment helped Chinese doctors curtail what could have been an even larger outbreak there.

"By helping the initial epicentre, you're going to help the world [and] you're going to help Canada as well," Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said this week. "There's a reciprocal concept of yes, helping China, but really, in the end, it's preventing further spread that will also affect Canada and the rest of the world. That's the concept."

The isolationist impulse gets stronger

Back in February, before anyone was worrying about whether it was a mistake to send supplies to China, there were calls to ban Chinese travellers from coming to Canada. Federal officials and medical experts warned that closing the border would not prevent the virus from getting to Canada and that focusing efforts on airports and border crossings would be an inefficient use of attention and resources.

Later, as the virus spread across Europe and the United States, Canadian officials took more drastic measures. At this point, only Canadian citizens and permanent residents, or American citizens performing essential services, are permitted into this country — though even that measure may only have slowed the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.

Re-opening those borders will be a significant political challenge. Even if maintaining border restrictions is a substantial drag on the Canadian economy, new infections from foreign travellers no doubt would lead to second-guessing and calls to close the borders again.

In the meantime, Patty Hajdu said on Thursday, one of the things "this pandemic is teaching all countries is the fragility of our supply chain systems."

"When we rely on one country or another for a particular source of goods, and that is the only country that can provide those goods or in that volume ... it puts our capacity to respond in an emergency situation somewhat at a disadvantage," she said.

What happens when this is over?

Part of the Canadian response to that problem is an extraordinary effort to create and expand domestic production of necessary supplies. Both medically and economically, that might help get Canada through this crisis — and greater domestic manufacturing capability might end up being a significant legacy of this pandemic.

But returning to a world of relatively open borders is still going to be everyone's greater benefit.

Asked this week whether the novel coronavirus might cause more nations to turn inward and protectionist, Chrystia Freeland made the case for thinking both locally and globally.

"On one hand ... in this time when we are facing real challenges to the health and safety of our own citizens, every country quite rightly needs to focus first and foremost on the health and safety of its own people," she said.

"[But] the long term lesson we should be learning from all of this is how important international cooperation is. The lesson that we are being taught is that none of us in the world can be safe and healthy unless we are working hard to be sure everyone in the world is safe and healthy."

As long as the novel coronavirus is circulating somewhere, it remains a threat to humans everywhere.

The challenge for leaders is to make the case that we cannot simply shut the door, hoard our own resources and hope to save ourselves.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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