The single most powerful weapon we have in the escalating war with the coronavirus is information – giving people facts and advice so they can take measures to protect themselves and their loved ones.
If we want Canadians to act in a socially responsible manner – to embrace social distancing, self-isolation and whatever other measures are to come – they need to trust the message and the messenger.
That’s why it’s essential that public-health officials and politicians speak with a unified voice and adopt consistent, coherent policies.
Enough of this nonsense of every jurisdiction – Ottawa, 10 provinces, three territories, hundreds of regional health units and countless cities and municipalities – having different messages. Enough of the pussyfooting around in the name of provincial autonomy and constitutional division of powers.
If the coronavirus is an emergency – and it is – then it has to be an emergency from coast to coast to coast, not just in Ontario or Calgary.
If we’re going to close educational institutions, then we need to shut down every one of them – daycares, elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities, regardless of where they are located.
If we’re going to ban large gatherings, then let’s ban them. Don’t make it groups of 50 in one province and 250 in another province; don’t make it mandatory in one jurisdiction and a simple request in another.
The self-isolation rules need to be identical for every single traveller.
Same goes with testing guidelines: They need to be the same in every single part of the country, not a confusing mess that leaves people frustrated and perplexed.
Sure, there are regional differences in a country as large and diverse as Canada, but that’s not a reason to have different rules in every hamlet. The core messages and actions have to be relentlessly consistent and co-ordinated, then amplified – not jumbled – locally.
In the early stages of the outbreak in Canada, public-health officials shone with their calm, reassuring messaging. Medical officers of health in every province had daily phone conferences and got all their ducks in a row before speaking publicly.
But, in recent days, as the number of cases has soared, the messaging has become increasingly muddled.
Some provinces, such as B.C. and Alberta, have continued to set the standard for transparency and clarity. Others, such as Ontario, have fallen back on their secretive “father knows best” ways.
On Monday, we saw a striking example of how we are failing in our all-important risk communication.
Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, revealed that at least four people who attended a dental conference in Vancouver had been infected with coronavirus – a clear example of community spread – and that more conference attendees had been diagnosed in other provinces.
Ontario, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to say where anyone has been infected. Officials won’t even acknowledge that community spread is happening on a significant scale, opting instead for platitudes such as “some people appear to have no travel history” and “we can’t definitely rule out community transmission.”
It is written, in black and white, on the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website that 74 per cent of cases are travellers and 6 per cent are close contacts of travellers.
You don’t need a PhD in epidemiology to know that means 20 per cent of cases are community-acquired or that the real number is many times higher.
We’re closing schools and bars and banning gatherings because there is a real, tangible risk that people can be infected in public, by strangers.
The reason everything changed in recent days is that the coronavirus is now spreading in communities in a number of provinces; it’s no longer just travellers who are at risk, it’s everyone.
We have to say that clearly. We also have to tell the public where those cases of community transmission are occurring.
This is a time for extreme transparency, not a time to be mealy-mouthed.
We have to act decisively and not be afraid to make some mistakes. In a pandemic response, speed trumps perfection.
The messaging doesn’t have to perfect either, but it has to be clear and consistent.
There is nothing in the constitutionally mandated division of powers that prevents federal and provincial officials from sitting down together – or, in the age of social distancing, teleconferencing – and coming up with a common plan and uniform messages.
National unity, in word and in deed, has never been more important. And with a common enemy, the coronavirus, presumably it has never been easier.