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Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It may seem like a cheap “gotcha” to catch Health Minister Patty Hajdu smiling bare-faced in an airport lounge, where passengers are expressly required to cover their faces. Lord knows there are more substantial matters for which one could criticize this minister, such as her smug dismissal of border control measures to control the spread of COVID-19 (and subsequent reversal), her haughty dressing-down of a journalist’s question about China’s pandemic obfuscation (and subsequent reversal) and her apparent belief that the use of rapid tests could worsen the spread of infection in Canada (and subsequent reversal).

Perhaps the minister, who was seen in a photo taken at Toronto’s Pearson airport and shared on Twitter Sunday evening, was preparing herself to eat or drink something that wasn’t visible in the photo. “Following public health rules is important to me,” Ms. Hajdu tweeted obliquely in response to the picture. “I wear my mask at all times at Toronto Pearson, and only take it off to eat or drink, as allowed.” In normal human language, this translates to something like, “Sorry, I was just about to pull out my sandwich,” and if we take the minister at her word, it would mean the photo merely captured her at a fleeting unguarded moment.

But the Minister of Health, of all people – who is the federal government’s representative on the COVID-19 response and the minister responsible for issuing health directives and instructions – is the last person who should be caught in an unguarded moment, however fleeting. Indeed, if you’ve spent the past eight months preaching about (albeit evolving) public-health protocols and scolding Canadians for non-compliance, you make absolutely sure you have a mask on your face up until the moment food is literally touching your lips. As the Minister of Health, there should be no opportunities for “gotcha” moments.

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Of course, Ms. Hajdu is not the only political leader who has been caught apparently flouting the rules. Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister have both been photographed not wearing masks at Toronto’s Pearson airport, for example. Mr. Pallister subsequently apologized for the error, although Mr. Scheer’s spokesperson explained it away by saying he only removed his mask to take a phone call (which is not an exemption under Pearson’s masking rules).

In May, when Ontario had instructed the public to stick to gatherings within their immediate households, Premier Doug Ford admitted that his daughters who live outside his home came over to his house to celebrate Mother’s Day. He nearly repeated the same mistake again weeks ago for Thanksgiving.

Earlier this month, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole appeared maskless and side by side for a livestream, where Mr. O’Toole, who had recently recovered from COVID-19, called himself “the easiest guy to hang out with because I can’t give [COVID-19] or get it from anyone for four months,” he said in reference to the unsettled science. Yet viewers who tuned in later or otherwise did not know about Mr. O’Toole’s illness simply saw two Canadian leaders unconcerned about masking or physical distancing.

And this past weekend, Ontario MPP Sam Oosterhoff shared – and then deleted – a series of photos of 40 people squeezed together unmasked during a private event. Current Ontario guidelines for Mr. Oosterhoff’s riding do allow for staffed indoor gatherings of 50 or fewer people, although everyone in attendance must be physically distanced and wearing masks unless eating or drinking. For those who have been abiding by public-health protocols, the photos looked as though they had been taken on another planet of mostly blond people who had never heard of COVID-19. Mr. Oosterhoff later apologized for the hall-of-fame-level stupid mistake.

With all of these examples, then, the public could be forgiven for thinking there are two sets of rules on pandemic protocols: one for the people who make the rules and one for those who are supposed to abide by them. And by seeing political leaders disregarding the spirit, if not the letter of the rules and laws, some Canadians might get the impression that the warnings to which we are constantly subjected are overblown. After all, if Ms. Hajdu doesn’t appear all that concerned about COVID-19 transmission in an airport lounge, why should the rest of us, who ostensibly are not privy to the same detailed health information, be worried?

A maskless moment for a minister who has otherwise deftly steered Canada’s federal health portfolio through the course of the pandemic, credibility intact, would be a blip mostly unworthy of mention or comment. But for Ms. Hajdu, who has backtracked, explained away and stumbled through the course of Canada’s health crisis, it is yet another example of her failure in leadership.

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