Along with online shopping, drive-thru dining and artisanal mask sewing, another enterprise that’s booming in the pandemic is the business of daily video briefings by premiers, ministers and the Prime Minister. By our count, these political startups have registered roughly 3,000 per cent growth since mid-March, with no signs of slippage.
From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s political leaders have spent the past two-plus months taking to the airwaves daily to roll out their latest crisis response. Screen time is the currency of politics, and from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Quebec Premier François Legault to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, the spokespersons of this communications exercise come prepared to promise and to pitch.
The federal Liberals, the most adept campaigners, have become proficient at ensuring that, at nearly every appearance, the PM has something newsworthy, however small, to roll out, just like during an election campaign. Every day an announcement, every day a message, every day a headline.
What political leaders have to say is always news. But what they aren’t saying, and aren’t doing, is also news. In a world where nobody goes in front of the cameras without easy-recall talking points, pay attention to what’s missing.
As in the old Sherlock Holmes story, listen for the dog that isn’t barking.
If Ottawa and the most virus-hit provinces of Ontario and Quebec had comprehensive and complete plans for testing and contact tracing, their success would be front and centre in the daily press briefings, day after day after day. You’d be hearing about them, in relentless and mind-numbing detail. If there were fully developed plans to screen, quarantine and monitor all international travellers arriving at Canada’s airports, or a plan to guarantee that thousands of truck drivers who must cross the border every day are not carrying infection, they would be on an endless loop.
That we are not is telling. Instead of transparent test-and-trace plans, and proud reports on their execution, we keep hearing about plans to have a plan, or plans to consider plans.
That’s worrying because, without all of the tools in place to safely reopen the Canadian economy, we run the risk of a spike in infections, and those restrictions being reimposed.
In a troubling sign, the number of people testing positive for the virus increased on some days this week in Ontario, even as the number of people tested fell. And the daily report from Public Health Ontario shows that, since the start of the outbreak, the source of one-third of the province’s infections is not known, while another third of cases are listed as “community transmission,” which means the only thing known is that the infected person got it from an unidentified somebody. Ontario has no idea how two-thirds of its cases got the virus, or from whom.
Mr. Ford sincerely wants and demands more tests, but it’s clearly a problem that goes deeper than his own personal willpower. For weeks, Mr. Ford has also been saying Ottawa must co-ordinate a national program for testing and tracing; for nearly the same amount of time, the Trudeau government has said it is ready to support such a plan. And on Thursday Mr. Trudeau said the subject would be on the agenda for an evening phone meeting with the premiers.
That’s all good as far as it goes, which isn’t nearly far enough. We’re reopening the economy, as we should, while still mulling over the possibility of acquiring the tools to do so safely. It’s like a hockey team taking to the ice without sticks and, after a period of play, resolving to poll the players during the first intermission as to how they think it’s going.
To safely reopen, Canada needs to give itself better, cheaper and more precise virus-control tools than a society-wide lockdown. Those tools are testing, contact tracing and isolation for cases within Canada, and testing and monitored quarantine for those crossing our borders.
These public-health instruments are insurance against another outbreak. The price tag for the current lockdown includes federal-provincial deficits of at least $300-billion this year, and a reduction in economic activity estimated by the Parliamentary Budget Officer at $395-billion.
Even testing on a massive scale, accompanied by an enormous bureaucracy for contact tracing and border enforcement, will cost only a fraction of that. Buy the insurance policy already.