Trudeau and COVID-19: walking a fine line between inciting panic and inducing complacency

In his messaging on the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has to walk a tightrope between sowing fear and encouraging complacency - by convincing Canadians their government has their back while reminding them that they have a vital role to play in halting the virus's spread.

It's a twofold message: Ottawa's got a plan, but it can't work unless Canadians buy into it

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gestures as he responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Wednesday March 11, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Eventually, someone got around to asking Justin Trudeau how bad it might get.

"I can tell you that there are a range of scenarios that we are facing," the prime minister said on Tuesday morning. "The largest factor is actually Canadians' own behaviour."

A day earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her fellow countrymen that as many as 60 to 70 per cent of them could become infected by the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.

You might appreciate Merkel's candour. You also might understand Trudeau's apparent reluctance to speculate aloud about worst case scenarios. Just a few weeks ago, Health Minister Patty Hajdu caused a minor sensation when she made a general comment about Canadians making sure they have enough food and medication on hand in the event someone in the household falls ill.

Any reluctance on the part of the Trudeau government had evaporated by Tuesday afternoon. Speaking with reporters before question period, Hajdu acknowledged that modelling exercises suggest that somewhere between 30 and 70 per cent of the population could end up infected.

A balancing act

The federal government is facing a balancing act, one that confronts every democratic government forced to respond to a global health emergency — to somehow avoid inciting either widespread panic or general complacency.

The range cited by Hajdu is massive: the difference between 30 per cent of Canadians and 70 per cent is the difference between 11.3 million people and 26.3 million people.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says the percentage of Canadians infected might be very large, while the number who fall ill could be much lower. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Even that lower number is a lot of people. But Hajdu was quick to note that "for a majority of people, this will feel like a cold or the flu." The greatest concern, she said, is for "vulnerable people" — the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.

But Canadians can't be oblivious to the fact that people are dying — one person so far in this country, more than 4,500 around the world.

"I know that people across the country are worried, worried about their health, worried about their aging parents, worried about the kind of impact this virus could have on their job, on their business," Trudeau said.

In his statement on Tuesday morning, Trudeau clearly meant to offer reassurance. He reviewed the government's actions so far and outlined a series of new measures adding up to more than $1 billion in federal assistance.

"I want all premiers and all Canadians to know, our government is here for you," he said. "We will make sure you have everything you need."

Erin O'Toole demands travel bans

If you were seeking a more feverish response, there was Erin O'Toole. A few hours after Trudeau's announcement, the Conservative leadership candidate declared in a written statement that the Trudeau government had "given up the fight against" COVID-19.

O'Toole said Canada must immediately ban all flights from "countries with a high rate of infection." According to O'Toole's campaign team, such a ban would apply currently to China, Iran and Italy. Other countries presumably would have to be added to the list as events warrant: Spain, Germany, France and the United States each now have detected more than a thousand cases of the virus.

Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole is accusing the government of dropping the ball by not introducing travel bans, even though Dr. Theresa Tam says they're not effective. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Asked whether O'Toole is planning to suspend his own campaign events, his deputy campaign manager, Melanie Paradis, said the campaign is monitoring the situation carefully and "following the advice of the Chief Medical Officer." 

But Canada's top medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has already dismissed travel bans as ineffective.

"Viruses know no borders and we have to balance our public health measures knowing that they are never completely perfect," she said. "I've always also said that as the number of countries increases, border measures are less effective and less feasible. So trying to focus on one country versus another can be much less reasonable as an approach, or effective."

Putting the experts up front

(Pointed to those statements, Paradis said the "situation is evolving rapidly" and noted that Tam's comments were made nine days ago.)

Trudeau and Hajdu have said repeatedly that they are being guided by the advice of experts like Tam. On Monday morning, Trudeau literally deferred to her, stepping back from the microphone twice and inviting Tam to respond to questions.

That might be the prudent approach. At the very least, it compares favourably with the example of Donald Trump, who has so far approached this crisis with little regard for expert opinion or evidence.

But Trudeau also must know that it's won't be Dr. Tam being blamed if Canada's efforts to deal with the virus fall short — it will be elected officials ultimately held responsible for ensuring the best steps are taken and health systems are prepared. Governments can't panic in the face of crisis. They also can't be complacent.

"I am a worst-case-scenario type of planner in my own personal life," Hajdu said on Tuesday.

It may yet fall to Trudeau or Hajdu to explain why more drastic steps — closing schools, limiting public events — are necessary.

COVID-19 is testing all the world's governments and health care systems. The test for Canada's institutions has really just begun.

People shelter against the rain with umbrellas as they walk along the Rialto bridge on a rainy day in Venice, Sunday, March 1, 2020. The Italian government has extended a coronavirus containment order previously limited to the country's north to the rest of the country. (The Associated Press)

The best hope for every country is to flatten the so-called "curve" — slowing and limiting the spread of the virus so that health systems can properly deal with the most serious infections. Invoking the curve on Monday, Trudeau made an appeal to personal responsibility.

"We can by making smart choices as citizens to follow the instructions of Health Canada, to wash your hands more often, to cough into the crook of your elbow, to stay home and self-isolate if you're beginning to get symptoms of coronavirus," he said.

Normally, he said, individuals might not feel personally "empowered" to affect major world events, he said. But the COVID-19 pandemic is different.

"We are in a situation where the choices our citizens make will have a direct impact on the health of Canada and on the Canadian economy," Trudeau said.

As odd as it might be to hear the prime minister advising Canadians on personal hygiene, that's an implicit argument against complacency. In fact, it was a plea for help.

In effect, Trudeau was seeking to both explain what the government is doing for Canadians and what Canadians can do for their country.

The government doesn't want the public to panic. It must also hope that the public isn't complacent.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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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