Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

COVID-19 pandemic has been a 'rapid shock to our societies,' says Patty Hajdu

Hajdu spoke to Checkup host Duncan McCue about the measures the federal government is taking — and might be willing to take in the future — to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

'I really feel for the Canadians across this country who are also in a state of disbelief': health minister

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu takes part in a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Friday, March 13, 2020, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Listen11:31

Four months ago, hardly anyone could have imagined the period of physical distancing and self-isolation Canadians and people around the world are experiencing, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But that's how long Canada's Minister of Health Patty Hajdu has been on the job following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's cabinet shuffle in November.

Hajdu spoke to Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue about the measures the federal government is taking — and might be willing to take in the future — to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Here's part of their conversation.

You became health minister late last year, which was just about a month before the whole outbreak first started. Have there been moments when you thought, you know, "I just can't believe this is happening on my watch?"

[During my] nine years in public health talking about pandemic planning, for much of that as a planner, it wasn't my direct role. But certainly in public health, that's always the sort of underlying theme in many of the things that we do.

So, yes ... it's unbelievable that I am the health minister during the time of a global pandemic of this size. Obviously, my mandate that I received from the prime minister six months ago didn't anticipate this kind of global public health emergency.

I'm like every other Canadian in that respect, in that I get up every day and I can't believe how quickly things have changed and where we have arrived.- Health Minister Patty Hajdu

But I will also say, just as a Canadian, I really feel for the Canadians all across this country who are also in a state of disbelief.

It really reminds us, I think, first of all, that we've lived in a golden age. Most of us have, you know, heard our grandparents' stories of hard times during war or through the Great Depression, but really very distant stories that we couldn't even really believe happened, on one hand.

And so here we are as a generation or two struggling to make sense of this rapid shock to our societies. And so I'm like every other Canadian in that respect, in that I get up every day and I can't believe how quickly things have changed and where we have arrived.

Left to right: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and President of the Treasury Board Jean-Yves Duclos at a news conference on the coronavirus situation, in early March. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Well, you get up this week, though, and you're the health minister. So what worries you most when you wake up tomorrow morning?

What worries me the most are ... the most vulnerable in our community that are going to be at risk of the most adverse outcomes, which is, you know, severe illness and up to and including death.

I worry about our public health system, which has been underfunded for decades, not being able to have the capacity to meet the needs. I worry about the vulnerable people that are in their homes not being able to get what they need to survive.

At the end of the day, it is going to be individual Canadian citizens' actions that are going to determine how well we can flatten that curve.- Hajdu

I worry about nursing homes, where frail people are existing with minimal staffing because of the risk to elderly people, and the reliance that we've had for generations on family members to fill in to do some of the most basic essential things like feed our elders.

These are the kinds of things that I worry about every single moment that I am awake. And sleep is blissful, because it gives me a few moments where I don't have to think about those things.

But I'll tell you, when I wake up at six in the morning, it's an immediate go-time, and we start working on the next set of problems so that we can do two things: One, protect the health and safety of all Canadians; and two, figure out how we get out of this mess.

Radical honesty. That's what we need, you said. You're getting the briefings. You've got the best data. How bad is this going to get?

I mean, there's a worst case scenario, and it doesn't take much to do the math on that. And then there's better outcomes based on the measures that we collectively take — provinces, territories and the federal government.

And so what I can say is that what we're trying really hard right now is to, as Dr. Tam says all the time, flatten the curve so we can prevent deaths, that we can protect our health-care system and that we can keep people as healthy as possible.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu is sending a warning to Canadians ignoring social distancing measures, saying it jeopardizes civil liberties and puts lives at risk. She anticipates these measures will last months, stressing 'now is not the time to take your foot off the social distancing measures.' 2:25

And the reality is, is that this is a collective thing that we have to do. I mean, people look to their governments, obviously, for solutions and we can be there for a lot of things.

But at the end of the day, it is also going to be individual Canadian citizens' actions that are going to determine how well we can flatten that curve.

You talk about "stringent" measures. ... Does there need to be a crackdown on public spaces in this country?

Well, listen, it would be ideal if Canadians could realize that by going out when they're symptomatic [and] not following the direction of public health, that they are not only jeopardizing their health, but the health of the most vulnerable among us.

So it's really important that Canadians understand that we're not exaggerating that public health is quite concerned, in fact worried and operating all the time, 24/7, to make sure that we understand where this disease is and protect citizens.

But citizens need to know that they are a part of this.

How far do you go, though? I mean, if there are people walking around on the beaches or kids playing on the playgrounds, I mean, do you get to the point that you have to invoke the Emergencies Act?

These are live conversations, as I said yesterday. I mean, if, in fact, the federal government has to take extraordinary measures to protect Canadians' health and the Canadian economy — which, by the way, go hand in hand — then I think then you could see stronger measures. And those conversations are underway with provinces and territories right now.

But what I can tell Canadians is that their actions matter right now. And you know, what we are counting on [is] Canadians to take this seriously.

If you're a snowbird and you're coming home, "isolate at home" means stay in your house for 14 days. And if there are people in your household who have not travelled, you need to isolate from them as well.

This is very serious and it's very important for Canadians to adhere to.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Richard Raycraft. Q&A edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview with Patty Hajdu, click the Listen button above.

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