During a press conference Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked whether she had any regrets about not imposing tougher travel restrictions earlier in the pandemic.
“As a rule, I never regret asking for things nicely,” she said, as if the question was about how to score an extra dipping sauce at a fast-food restaurant – not how to control the movement of people during a pandemic that has paralyzed the economy and killed thousands of Canadians.
“I believe,” Ms. Freeland continued, “that you need to be polite and have a smile on your face and also have tough rules and measures in place. And that’s why the 14-day obligatory quarantine is a really important, really, really tough measure, and I am glad it is there.”
That really, really tough measure, as we well know now, was not enough to prevent a much more contagious COVID-19 variant from making its way into Canada and spreading in the community, nor were polite requests to stay home over the holidays persuasive enough to keep even those who should know better – politicians and health care leaders, for example – out of airports and away from beaches.
“Asking for things nicely” was the official policy for about two weeks back in March, 2020, when incoming travellers were asked to self-isolate after returning from abroad. That request then became an order under the Quarantine Act, though the federal government neglected to simultaneously adopt meaningful tools of enforcement and monitoring, relying instead on the supposed persuasive power of a smile and the word “mandatory.” Only now, almost one year later, has the federal government begun to acknowledge that relying on hope and pinky swears isn’t enough to garner control over a rapidly evolving pandemic – even if Ms. Freeland insists she has no regrets.
It’s a type of institutional naiveté – a wide-eyed belief in the inherent goodness and complaisance of people – that has been alarmingly present in federal government decision-making since the start of the pandemic.
Early in the first wave, for example, Canada accepted information out of China – and by extension, through the World Health Organization (WHO) – with little skepticism, even while knowing that China tried to cover up the severity and spread of its SARS outbreak in 2003. Canada has moved in lockstep with WHO guidelines on issues such as border closures, mask usage and asymptomatic transmission, even while other countries that shunned WHO directives demonstrated early success in curbing the spread of the virus. Indeed, Canada’s health minister even went so far as to chide a journalist for suggesting that China might again be concealing the extent of its outbreak.
On vaccines, Canada partnered with a Chinese company to run the first Canadian clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate, despite ongoing diplomatic tensions between the two countries. On May 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the partnership with CanSino Biologics with much fanfare, which was predicated on the same institutional naiveté – or maybe a pinky swear – that the regime that imprisoned two Canadians in an act of retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou wouldn’t also block the export of its vaccine candidate and sabotage the deal. That naiveté was exposed, according to recent reporting, all of three days later.
Eight months later, Canada is now hoping that countries that have been manufacturing successful vaccines won’t stem the export of what is one of the most coveted items in the world amid a global shortage. Shipments of Pfizer’s vaccine to Canada stopped completely this week, though European Union member states have only had to grapple with a one-week slowdown as Pfizer retools its plant in Belgium. On Tuesday, the EU threatened to block the export of its vaccines after news that AstraZeneca was experiencing production problems and would have to reduce its deliveries. U.S. President Joe Biden recently set an ambitious new target of performing 1.5 million vaccinations per day. This all bodes poorly for Canada’s efforts to improve its so-far dismal vaccine performance.
Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday that Canada’s vaccine plan is still on track, despite the threat of export controls. “We are communicating with our partners in Europe to make sure that all the contracts signed by Canada will be respected,” he told Canadians, though he did not mention whether he asked for this nicely, or if he had a smile on his face. The same unyielding faith in goodness that brought us lackadaisical border and travel controls, implicit trust in WHO instructions and a vaccine partnership with a company in China is now asking us to believe that countries will prioritize contracts over their own citizens’ well-being. The federal government has largely relied on “asking nicely” throughout this pandemic. How has that been working so far?
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