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opinion

Ontario Premier Doug Ford arrives at a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Nov. 3, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

As the pandemic drags on, the political fault lines are showing. The Prime Minister is throwing shade at the premiers; the premiers are sniping at the PM; politicians are increasingly ignoring the advice of public health; frustrated scientists and clinicians are lashing out at elected officials and civil servants; and even mild-mannered public-health officials are taking pot shots at the news media.

We can’t afford this descent into finger-wagging distrust. Because if there is one thing the coronavirus does murderously well, it is exploit our weaknesses.

The only way to rein in the on-the-verge-of-getting-out-of-control pandemic is with a united front – with leaders willing to make hard decisions.

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Right now, as cases are surging, too many of our leaders are urging rather than acting, hedging their bets rather than being decisive.

Worse yet, the public has been bombarded with ever-changing recommendations to the point where it’s virtually impossible to figure out what the rules are.

Ontario, as it has done since the outset of the pandemic, continues to lead the confusion parade.

The province introduced a colour-coded traffic-light system to give the public a sense of the pandemic risk level. Then, as cases surged, it loosened restrictions, which made no sense. If that was not bad enough, it turns out that the government of Doug Ford ignored the recommendations of public-health officials and imposed its own arbitrary (and much less strict) thresholds for action.

Let’s be clear: The role of public health – and epidemiologists and clinicians – is to provide technically correct solutions. Politicians have the final say in determining how rules and regulations will be implemented in response to the pandemic and are free to ignore any or all advice they receive.

But – and this is an important “but” – politicians have to be transparent. They have to justify why they are ignoring sound advice, and bear the consequences.

Another frustrating habit of our politicians is taking a disingenuous “I trust the public to do the right thing” position. (Jason Kenney, please stand up.) That’s the antithesis of leadership.

If your position is that businesses must remain open at all costs, and infections, hospitalizations and deaths be damned, then say so. Don’t just keep promising some vague action at some uncertain future time.

Politicians, and the civil servants who answer to them (some of them public-health officials), are in an unenviable position. They are damned if they order new public-health measures, from lockdowns on down, and damned if they don’t.

Scientists, physicians, nurses, personal-support workers, hospital administrators all have the right – maybe even the moral obligation – to speak out. But they, too, should recognize that there will, and must, be trade-offs in a democratic society.

Keep the recommendations coming, but keep the advice above the belt. Cheap shots and the impugning of political motives have no place in the public discourse.

Recognize that, yes, a “circuit-breaker” lockdown for two, four or eight weeks is probably what’s needed right now. But also acknowledge that all the experts have jobs right now, unlike many of the people who would be affected by another shutdown of the economy.

And, like it or not, politicians can’t afford to summarily alienate the public; they want to be re-elected.

Provinces are divided on what the response should be to the pandemic, but it does not strictly follow party lines. Manitoba’s Conservative government has what are arguably the toughest restrictions in the country. British Columbia’s New Democrats have some of the loosest rules; masks are not even mandatory indoors.

Whatever approach a province or a region takes, it won’t succeed if you don’t have buy-in from the public.

It gets tiresome to repeat it, but the single most important tool in the pandemic response kit is good communication.

Instead of using our energy and political capital on squabbling, we need to spend it on reconnecting with the public, helping them understand the gravity of the current spike in cases and providing a way out with straightforward, easy-to-understand rules.

What metric exactly will trigger a specific response? Do we shut down when half of the intensive care beds are full? When the positivity rate is 10 per cent? When active cases hit 100 per 100,000 people? Pick a threshold and act on it, forcefully.

We don’t have time to waste on dithering or semantics. Pandemic fatigue is dangerously real. We can’t wait much longer for some reinvigorating leadership.

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