If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic is surely reminding Canadians of why so-called “big government” was created. Like 9/11 and the global recession of 2008-9, the arrival of this deadly virus – and the Canadian government’s excellent and comprehensive response to it — is providing a master class in why the private sector and globalization are no substitute for the expertise, leadership and organizational competence that government can bring to bear on a crisis.
Looking south of the border Canadians can also see what happens when incompetent politicians such as Donald Trump try to manage events on their own, in ignorance, and especially after they have cut back on funding for many of the crucial programs and services that would have helped Americans to manage this crisis. Sadly, the richest and most technologically-advanced country in the world is now reliant on the private sector and influential social media mavens such as Gwyneth Paltrow to obtain accurate information and some measure of protection. Here in Canada, by contrast, our only Trump-like moment has been courtesy of Ontario premier Doug Ford, who told families they should carry on with their March Break travel plans hours before Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, urged all Canadians to avoid travel outside the country.
The visuals in this piece are striking. Public health professionals like Dr. Tam and her provincial counterparts, (and especially B.C. medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry ) have risen to the occasion, representing the outward and visible first response of their respective governments with calm, measured, professional advice and recommendations, while their political masters have stood quietly by, ceding their place to experts and evidence-based decision-making. Government websites provide crucial and timely information. Federal health minister Patty Hajdu has provided constant support to her officials, ensuring consistency of message, and has given Canadians a reassuring image of their government and its concern for their well-being, as has the prime minister. And when the government takes action it provides a comprehensive and transparent explanation for its decisions, again basing them on evidence and expert opinion.
Behind the scenes much more is happening on an ongoing basis. A special cabinet committee has been set up to monitor the situation and deal with ongoing issues. Various departments, such as Transport and Public Safety, have taken a lead role in implementing specific measures. Federal and provincial bureaucrats and politicians are in frequent contact, and federal officials are in close contact with international officials at WHO and elsewhere. Finance Minister Morneau has already announced one short-term financial package and promised that much more financial aid is on the way, as he and his officials assess the longer-term consequences for citizens and the economy in general.
Although Canada has undoubtedly had an advantage in being forewarned of this emerging crisis which began at some distance, it is also important to note that the government was well-positioned to cope with this pandemic as the result of an impressive review and remediation exercise that took place after the SARS outbreak in 2003. In light of that experience, both the national public health officer post and provincial equivalents were created, the federal Public Health Agency was established and the archaic Quarantine Act was overhauled. Perhaps equally importantly, official lines of communication were established between federal and provincial players to ensure the smooth unrolling and operation of remedial measures during just such a crisis as the one we are currently experiencing.
Although the country may be in for a prolonged and possibly worsening situation, it has not escaped media attention that so far our country has been extremely successful in limiting the spread of this virus. Even National Post columnist John Ivison – no fan of either big government or Liberals – has commended the actions taken to date by the Trudeau government, which he described as a “co-ordinated solid response.” He concluded “We are fortunate to be blessed with conscientious lawmakers and competent public servants. They are not perfect, but who among us would want to face this terrible pathogen in a country other than Canada?” (Mar 14, 2020)