Did the political art of compromise fail Canada during the pandemic?

“I know I’ve said the same thing before every major holiday over the past year,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday as he asked Canadians to avoid getting together for Easter or Passover.

“But this time, what’s different is that even if the end of the pandemic is in sight, the variants mean the situation is even more serious.”

By the time Trudeau spoke, Premier John Horgan’s government already had implemented new restrictions in British Columbia after the daily COVID-19 case count in that province reached a record high. On Thursday, with new infections in Ontario exceeding 2,000 each day for the past week, Premier Doug Ford’s government followed suit. Other provinces presumably will go next, however belatedly.

This was the week the third wave’s arrival became obvious. It only remains to be seen whether this wave will be less painful than the last one — or worse.

When government responses to the pandemic are studied in the years ahead, there will be any number of questions to answer and theories to test — particularly related to preparedness and decisions made during the first four months of 2020.

We had time. Why didn’t we use it better?

But there will be important questions to ask about those second and third waves — especially since we can’t claim to have been caught by surprise.

Maybe that first wave a year ago was never going to be the end of the pandemic in Canada. But did it have to be this bad? After what we learned from the first wave, and with the time everyone had last summer to prepare, shouldn’t we have managed the second wave better? And did governments fail to bury the third wave when they had the chance?

During the second wave in Ontario last fall, Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, argued that the Ford government was approaching COVID-19 as if it were a “political problem” instead of the “public health problem” it is.

Crosses representing residents who died of COVID-19 are pictured on the lawn of Camilla Care Community, in Mississauga, Ont., on Jan. 13, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In the fog of war, it can be dangerous to draw firm conclusions. And each province responded to the pandemic in its own way. But Furness’s words offer a good place to start thinking through what happened over the last seven months.

Politics is reactive. Politicians react to public concerns and crises as they arise. Politicians also tend to seek compromises between seemingly competing interests — such as the greater public interest in curbing the spread of a deadly disease and business owners’ interest in minimizing the effects on their livelihoods.

You can’t make deals with a virus

But an optimal public health response would be proactive and uncompromising in attacking the real problem — the virus.

“A public health approach is marked by proactive, preventative action that can seem unreasonable,” Furness said in an email this week. “A political approach is marked by trying to negotiate between the wishes of the virus and the wishes of people, like having lockdowns take effect after the holidays.”

Trying to calibrate restrictions and policies to find compromises might have been futile. “We’re trying to negotiate with COVID and it’s not working,” Furness said in an interview earlier this year.

A demonstrator marches inside a plastic ball during a weekend protest in Montreal against the Quebec government’s public health measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Preemptive action can be politically challenging, of course.

“The challenge with this pandemic … is that you really need to react before the problem is apparent and that politically can be really difficult,” said Ashleight Tuite, also an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. “Asking people to make very large sacrifices when it’s not really clear what the sacrifices are being made for can be very challenging.

“It’s a continual problem in public health. Because when it’s working, you don’t see it.”

But more sweeping and faster lockdowns might have offered a greater degree of normalcy to businesses and citizens between outbreaks.

This could have been avoided

Both Tuite and Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, suggest that more could have been done last summer to bolster testing and contact tracing — investments that could have been made last summer. Deonandan also would have gone further to ban non-essential travel when concerns arose about variants that originated elsewhere.

But the larger point might be that the case counts of the current moment and the second wave were not inevitable.

“We understand enough about the virus to mitigate it. We may not be able to eliminate it completely, but we know how to control it,” Tuite said. “And so it’s really a matter of doing all the things that needed to be done. And we just didn’t do that.”

This does not seem to be an exclusively Canadian problem. The line graphs for infections in Germany and France, for instance, look broadly similar; French President Emmanuel Macron just ordered a national lockdown to combat a third wave in his country.

Passengers wear protective gear as they wait for a flight at Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, N.S. on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

It’s also easy to wonder whether other provinces could have emulated the success of the Atlantic provinces, which have largely kept infections low within their regional bubble. Have we allowed ourselves to accept higher levels of infection outside of that bubble?

If we go back to work out where the collective response fell short — where the pandemic was approached with a political mindset instead of a public health one — we end up talking about things like paid sick leave.

The wisdom of making it easier for people to stay home from work if they’re not feeling well is obvious. The federal government introduced a new sickness benefit last fall that those who fall ill can apply for, but it falls short of full sick leave, which would be automatic and obligatory.

Health and labour advocates have called on provinces to implement paid sick leave — something that could be particularly helpful for the people working low-income but essential jobs who seem to be suffering disproprotionately from COVID-19. But the provinces haven’t moved.

It’s easy to imagine why they might be reluctant.

Business owners struggling with the impact of the pandemic would balk at having to pay for new sick leave. Provincial governments might dread introducing a temporary program that would be politically difficult to repeal later. And the new federal program might provide a handy excuse for not doing more.

In politics, that might seem like a reasonable compromise. But once this ordeal is over, we might look back and conclude that the moment demanded more than what we thought would suffice.

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