20 months later, our governments still haven’t figured this out

OPINION: The feds and the province are both screwing up the COVID-19 response, and neither has any excuse
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 06, 2021
Ottawa has already had to announce exemptions to its brand-new travel rules. (redtea/iStock)

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It is consistently dispiriting how much difficulty we have had adapting to the realities of life during a pandemic. 

At TVO.org, we usually focus on provincial issues. There will be some of that here today, but it’s important to also mention the federal government. There are two weird policy failures unfolding next to each other in real time, and they both need to be discussed in order to understand the scope of the problem. 

Let’s start with the federal one, because we can very quickly get it out of the way. Twenty months after COVID-19 arrived through our airports and land-border crossings, catching government officials at every level almost completely off guard across most of the country, we are seeing that we have not improved much. When word of Omicron’s emergence came out roughly 10 days ago, the federal government was quick to impose targeted travel bans on South Africa and other nations in the region. These bans are contentious because of concerns about effectiveness and stigmatization. These are valid concerns, but there is still a role for targeted measures, if only to buy time. (The case for maintaining targeted measures erodes once a variant has gone global, as Omicron has, but that wasn’t known when the decision was made.)

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The quick response from federal officials was a pleasant improvement over their performance in early 2020, when they became so mesmerized by the bright light in their eyes that they didn’t realize it was a train barrelling down a tunnel right toward them (and all of us). This moment of apparent competence, however, was but an illusion. Reporting throughout last week and over the just-concluded weekend makes clear that, while Ottawa might be faster at announcing things, it sure ain’t faster at executing what it’s announced. Airline and airport officials are struggling to figure out what the rules are. Ottawa has had to announce exemptions to its brand-new plans because they created absurdities for returning Canadians (including a need to travel to a country that Canada is currently recommending Canadians not travel to). There are obviously missing links in Ottawa’s system: A wonky app. People in quarantine hotels not being able to contact the management there. Patients with specific medical dietary restrictions reportedlynot being provided with food they can actually eat.

So, yeah, things aren’t looking great on the federal front. Twenty months after this all began, we basically seem to be about as helpless as we ever were.

Now let’s talk Ontario.

COVID-19 case rates have been rising steadily for more than a month. There has not yet been a surge in hospitalizations, which is excellent news. Our vaccine campaign is paying dividends, and the virus has recently been moving through younger age groups, meaning we are less likely, at this time, to see the kind of serious illness that pressures the health-care system. Though ICU occupancy has begun to rise recently, it is still low — that could change, but for now, it’s okay. 

But cases and ICU patients are increasing at a dangerous moment. Now that the weather has turned cold, people will be congregating more indoors, and we will have fewer people leaving a window or door ajar to let in fresh air. And we’re about to hit the Christmas break, when millions of us will travel and gather together as families. This would’ve posed a risk even before Omicron’s arrival. If this new bug is as contagious as some of the early evidence suggests, we had better hope it proves mild, because it is not hard to see how an aggressively contagious new variant could easily sweep this province over the next month.

There is something that can be done, and indeed, something that apparently will be done. The Ontario government has said that children at schools, at least publicly funded ones, will be offered five take-home rapid tests to be used over the holidays. This is not mandatory, but it is an option, and it is one that should allow families to make safe decisions about gathering together over the break. Rapid tests are not perfect, but we must overcome our typical preference for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yes, it’s true, they’re not as accurate as a lab-based PCR test and are particularly limited in their ability to catch either very early infections or asymptomatic ones. But they are an effective line of defence and screening, particularly for those showing symptoms that could be just a cold or could be COVID-19. Make it easier to find out!

The choice to distribute them to students before the holidays makes sense. But it made sense before this and makes sense for everyone, not just students. The cost of the kits is not huge. I can order a set of five online right now for less than 60 bucks. I know it’s not true that everyone has $60 to spend, but a government choosing to purchase at scale would drive that price down considerably. We should have been handing these things out like lollipops at a kid’s barbershop as soon as they became widely available. Instead, we’ve built up stockpiles that we have refused to use.

It’s important for the reader to know why I have very deliberately offered both the federal and provincial example of continued dysfunction and incompetence. Human beings have a nasty habit of refusing to accept their share of responsibility for any problem that can be even semi-possibly blamed entirely on someone else. This is especially true in the realm of partisan politics. Why accept any measure of blame for your own mistakes when there are a whole bunch of other jerks out there, members of some other club, that you can blame for everything instead.

This is one of my main worries about the pandemic, or perhaps more specifically, about how we will study the lessons of it afterward. As noted above, there are failures unfolding right now at both the federal and provincial levels. The federal government today happens to be Liberal; the Ontario government happens to be Progressive Conservative. They are both screwing it up within their own jurisdictions, and neither has any excuse. 

I am genuinely worried, and I think with good reason, that federal politicians are going to blame their provincial counterparts for screwing everything up and that provincial politicians will blame Ottawa. On a societal level, Liberals will insist it was those evil conservative premiers who screwed everything up, while voters who happen to like those conservative premiers will say none of these bad things would’ve happened if Justin Trudeau had had his act together on the federal level.

The problem is, they’ll all have a point. But instead of seizing on this moment as an opportunity to learn and do better, we will probably turn this into just the latest opportunity to blame the other guy. Indeed, I have to wonder if our refusal to interrogate our own blindspots, failures, and bad calls is why, 20 months into this damn thing, we still don’t know what the hell we’re doing at the airports and are only now maybe, just maybe, starting to look to the possible benefits of rapid tests.

Learning from your own mistakes is hard. Noting the other guy’s mistakes is easy. Maybe we’ll learn to do better someday. We haven’t yet.

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