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Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam looks on during a briefing in Ottawa on Jan. 15, 2021.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Last week, Canada’s top doctor called for stronger measures to control the out-of-control spread of COVID-19 and its variants across the country. “The race between the vaccine and the variants is at a critical point,” Dr. Theresa Tam told reporters.

But I didn’t hear Dr. Tam utter those words at her news conference, and I’m betting the majority of the country didn’t either. I’m sure a few people quickly glanced at news accounts in publications such as this one (like I did) or on an all-news channel. But I would guess the vast majority of people living in Canada didn’t hear a word of what she had to say – and wouldn’t have cared much even if they had.

Who is still listening to Dr. Tam?

This is not a knock against the country’s chief public-health officer. But having lived with this health emergency for more than a year now, we have a pretty good idea by now of how things work.

Dr. Tam can urge tighter restrictions all she wants, but in the end it’s not her call. I mean, it was pretty clear the good doctor was looking at Ontario and the frightening proliferation of cases there when she issued her call to action. But on the very same day, that province’s Premier, Doug Ford, was saying Ontario was actually “doing pretty well” compared to the rest of the world.

So there you go.

It’s been evident for some time that Dr. Tam’s professional advice no longer carries much weight when it comes to the fight against COVID-19. It’s the provinces who are running the show, for better or worse – and lately it’s been for the worse.

But there is a bigger problem – it’s not just Dr. Tam people have tuned out. It’s Dr. Bonnie Henry in B.C., Dr. Deena Hinshaw in Alberta, Dr. David Williams in Ontario – you can go right across the board. Canadians have heard public-health officers across the country speak almost every day for the past year, and often their mantra is the same: wear masks, maintain social distance, “we’re so close to the end” and so on. I understand it’s difficult to come up with new, inventive ways to say the same thing over and over.

Maybe it would have been better if governments changed the messenger. I don’t mean replacing these people, but occasionally changing the identity of the person talking to the public would have helped – perhaps inserting someone with a gruffer, no-nonsense demeanour when circumstances demanded it.

The authority of our public-health officials has also been undermined by fellow medical professionals – epidemiologists, internal-medicine specialists, virus-transmission modelers – who have often publicly challenged their facts and advice. And it hasn’t helped that some of the messaging from public-health officials has been vague and confusing – sometimes even contradictory. This has also diminished their standing with the public.

The people whose voices are being heard now – the voices that are having the most impact – are those on the front lines of the battle. I’m thinking of people like Dr. Michael Warner, an intensive care specialist at Michael Garron Hospital, who has warned that the entire health care system could collapse under the weight of the third wave.

“It’s World War Three,” he told the CBC. “This could be an unmitigated disaster.”

Some might accuse him of hyperbole, but he’s the one living this nightmare every day, not Mr. Ford. At least not in the same way.

The public’s trust in our country’s top public-health officials has also been eroded by a cynicism nurtured over time. The Vancouver Sun recently reported that since Feb. 22, more than 100 plane passengers arriving in the city have refused the “mandatory” three-day hotel quarantine. Their punishment? They could face a $3,000 ticket for not abiding by the edict – which is about $500 more than they would have had to pay to stay at the hotel.

Meanwhile, there are reports of dozens and dozens of planes landing in Vancouver every month and disgorging people ill with COVID-19. This is undoubtedly happening across the country.

When people see that level of indifference by governments to do the right thing – to crack down on those endangering others and better protect us from incoming threats – they just throw up their hands in disgust. And they tune out the politicians and their proxies urging us to do the right thing.

Sad to say, I think most Canadians stopped listening some time ago. Complacency and frustration is now the order of the day.

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