Ottawa can't afford any more mixed messages on COVID-19

In any other circumstance, two days of confusion in official messaging might not matter that much. But a pandemic demands more of the people we elect to lead us.

This is a once-in-a-century health threat — and the consequences of poor communication could be deadly

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam is seen on a television in the background as she gives a news conference as international travellers arrive at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Monday, March 16, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

If Friday seemed to offer a small moment of reassurance, the last few days reinforced the challenge now facing governments — to act quickly and intelligently in the face of a once-in-a-century global health emergency, and to do so while clearly explaining and justifying those actions.

The first source of concern was the situation at Canada's airports.

On Friday, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam repeated her longstanding request that travellers returning to Canada from Hubei province in China, Italy and Iran self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. Tam added that travellers from other countries should "consider" self-isolation as well.

But on Saturday and Sunday, there were reports of inbound passengers not receiving that newest advice from border agents. In a news conference on Sunday afternoon, Tam was more definitive: "I strongly recommend that all travellers coming from outside Canada take the additional precaution to self -isolate for 14 days," she said.

A COVID-19 sign is pictured on a kiosk as international travellers arrive at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C. Monday, March 16, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

By Sunday evening, provincial and municipal authorities were promising to dispatch their own officials to airports to provide the advice that apparently wasn't being conveyed.

Anecdotally, the situation seems to have been resolved.

In any other circumstance, two days of confusion might not matter that much. Even now, it's difficult to say whether the weekend was a significant problem or whether, in hindsight, it will seem like a relatively minor lapse.

But when lives are at stake, everything seems important — and in the frenzy of social media, hours feel like weeks.

While being asked to account for the weekend's events on Sunday, Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly said that there would be "important news" on Monday. She was asked (not unreasonably) why that important news couldn't be announced right away.

The Liberal government's handling of this crisis before this weekend was not beyond reproach — but these might have been the first indisputable wobbles in its tactics.

Trudeau discusses mandatory self-isolation

2 years ago
Duration 0:38
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks about what would be involved if the government imposed mandatory self-isolation to fight the spread of COVID-19.

"The situation, as we all know, has been evolving extremely rapidly and we've taken measures over the past number of days to keep Canadians safe," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday afternoon, appearing again in front of Rideau Cottage. "We're taking more measures, significant measures today. I can understand people's frustration and that's why we're ensuring that there is more that will be done every step of the way to keep Canadians safe."

Those extraordinary new measures — mostly notably, a ban on travellers who are not citizens or permanent residents of Canada, with an exception for American citizens — shifted the conversation again.

At least two aspects of the new measures demanded explanation.

Why make an exception for Americans?

First, the exception for American citizens. Given the American government's handling of the crisis and the spread of the virus across the United States, it might be tempting to conclude that Canada should close its border entirely, or at least ban all non-essential visitors.

In not so many words, Trudeau essentially said that economic and trade concerns needed to be considered, while also suggesting that more might be done in the days ahead. "The level of integration of our two countries is quite particular," he said, "which is why we need to do some more work in order to ensure that we're doing what we need to do in the right way."

"The fact that we are saying to all visitors to Canada, and all returning Canadians, that they are strongly recommended to go into 14 day self-isolation … I don't consider [that] to be something that a tourist would like to do for a holiday," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said later, perhaps offering another glimpse into the government's thinking.

The other challenge faced by the government was to explain the basic wisdom of targeting Canada's international borders for action.

Why go after the borders now?

Since the beginning of the global outbreak, federal officials have de-emphasized border restrictions as a solution. By Monday, the government apparently had decided that border restrictions could at least be part of the solution.

"We have seen, over time, various countries take very stiff border measures that proved ineffective. In Canada, we based our decisions on public health recommendations that ensured that Canada's approach worked for many, many weeks in keeping a very slow spread of the virus in Canada, through contact-tracing and other measures," Trudeau said.

"We've now come to the point where the best advice from public health officials is that additional border measures, on top of the social distancing measures that we are encouraging domestically, is the right combination to move forward now."

Days ago, in a piece on international responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, the editors of the Economist observed that "all governments will struggle. Some will struggle more than others."

One might have detected a bit of empathy for their shared challenge in Ontario Premier Doug Ford's willingness to praise both Trudeau and Freeland in his own news conference on Monday. Days earlier, former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne offered some words of empathy for Ford after the premier stumbled in some of his own public comments.

But not even the inevitability of struggle can absolve governments of the mistakes they make, nor shield them from insistent questions about what they're doing and why.

Much of the emphasis to date has been on what citizens themselves can and must do to fight this virus. But the responsibility of elected officials and public servants cannot be abrogated.

At the very least, citizens might hope that their governments will get better, not worse, as the days go on. That lessons will be learned, improvements made. But there's still an incredible demand for quick corrections and constant, thorough explanation.

One day, when this is all over, there will be a thorough investigation of who did what and why, and what could have been done better.

But in the urgency of this moment, demands for accountability will be constant.


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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