Two weeks ago, Justin Trudeau told Canadians the country was at a “crossroads.” On Friday, the prime minister said we were at a “tipping point.”
Though the metaphors might now be mixed, it’s at least clear that the pandemic situation in Canada has become only more precarious over the last two weeks.
“This second wave is really frustrating for a whole bunch of people who’ve been through this spring and who don’t want to see this happen right now,” Trudeau said. “A whole bunch of us would love to see this simply go away. Well, it’ll only go away if we all do our part.”
That’s true. We will not awake one day to find that COVID-19 has magically disappeared. It will take a collective effort to mitigate the spread of the virus and, ultimately, eradicate it.
But with cases surging again, questions about who is or is not doing their part are unavoidable. And frustrations about a second wave will test the public’s willingness to rally behind their leaders, as they did this spring.
A predictable calamity
If the second wave in Canada matches or surpasses the first wave — in terms of infections or economic hardship — it will be doubly frustrating because no one can claim to have been surprised by the possibility of a resurgence. The prospect of a second wave in the fall or winter was first discussed and worried over months ago.
If governments have any advantage now, it’s that they should have a better understanding of how to handle health-related restrictions and the economic supports necessary to get people and businesses through those lockdowns. On that note, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland rolled out a new rent subsidy for businesses on Friday that the government hopes will be an improvement on the rent assistance program it tried out in the spring.
Trudeau suggested Canadians can also draw on the knowledge that the tide of outbreaks can be stemmed. “I know this is discouraging, especially going into Thanksgiving weekend,” he said. “But remember this — when things were at their bleakest during the first wave, Canadians pulled together and flattened the curve. We flattened the curve before, we can do it again.”
But will Canadians be more tempted this time to blame their governments — or each other?
The federal Conservatives continue to insist that the new infections in Canada can be blamed on a lack of access to rapid testing for COVID-19 and that the federal government should have moved faster to ensure such tests were available.
The utility of rapid testing is a point of debate in the United States. But the Liberals have responded by saying that testing is not a “silver bullet,” that rapid tests need to be accurate enough to be useful and that politicians shouldn’t be pressuring federal health regulators to make approvals (they also have promised that rapid tests will be distributed this fall).
Perhaps — as epidemiologist Colin Furness of the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation has suggested — Health Canada officials could be less conservative in how they review testing options. But however much rapid tests might help to control the spread of COVID-19 while reopening the economy, it’s not obvious that a lack of such tests is to blame for, say, the long lines and backlogs in Ontario.
Unless the premiers were told to expect a rollout of rapid tests — something that no one seems to be claiming — provincial governments should have put in place the resources necessary to handle this fall’s demand with the existing options.
Don’t blame the tools, says epidemiologist
“Rapid testing is a ‘nice to have’ but not essential for controlling spread,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto. “Many other countries are successfully managing the pandemic with the same tools we have access to in Canada.”
The Trudeau government has responsibility for national agencies like Health Canada and for health care in Indigenous communities, which are also seeing an increase in infections. But Canada is (to its endless frustration and benefit) a federation and the vast majority of health policy is set by the provinces.
“I think most of the responsibility for the current situation falls to the individual provinces [and] territories,” said Tuite. “The management and response has varied tremendously across the country and we see that in the very different outcomes.”
The federal government provided $21 billion to the provinces to assist a “safe restart” this fall — but the prime minister ignored a reporter’s suggestion on Friday that perhaps he could invoke the Emergencies Act to take over authority where provinces are struggling to contain COVID-19.
WATCH / Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces pandemic shutdowns
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford is facing many questions about how his government has managed the situation and communicated with the public. In that province, the low reported case numbers and the move to reopen bars and restaurants over the summer “telegraphed to the whole population that there’s no problem,” said Furness, who also argues the Ford government has been more “reactive” than proactive.
Reopening the economy to some extent might have been necessary, and perhaps some kind of second wave was inevitable; countries across Europe are reporting significant new outbreaks. But it’s not clear that the reopening has been done with due care.
At the same time, the small business lobby is now describing Ontario’s new restrictions as a “crushing blow” and it remains to be seen how much “pandemic fatigue” or anti-lockdown agitation will complicate any efforts to reverse course now.
Trudeau has nothing to gain from criticizing any other level of government — he can’t claim to have done everything perfectly over the last seven months and it doesn’t do anyone any good to have governments battling or casting doubt on each other in a crisis. Trudeau might have to deal with the consequences of economic disruption or unhappy citizens, but he can only offer federal support and hope that other levels of government succeed.
This spring was hard, but the hardest thing to think about might have been something few of us wanted to face — the idea that it was not going to get much easier, at least not for a while. Furness said he believes we might be only at the start of a second, bigger wave.
But if the country has come to the crossroads — or a tipping point — so have its leaders. And the test of leadership now might be even harder than it was in the spring, as a crisis we might have allowed ourselves to think was getting better suddenly becomes worse again.