BY IAN PATTISON
We’re an obedient lot. At least, that’s what our political leaders keep telling us during this pandemic. At nearly every opportunity the prime minister and premiers repeat the rules about social distancing and then praise us for doing just that.
There are glaring exceptions. You may have read about some of them, but taken together they present a disturbing pattern.
Let’s start with leadership. As Canadians lamented the absence of traditional Easter dinners, Justin Trudeau was driven from Ottawa to the prime minister’s official country residence at Harrington Lake in Quebec to be with his wife and children.
When Sophie Gregoire Trudeau posted happy things about the family reunion on Instagram, responses were predictable. "It's nice Justin was able to rejoin his family for the holiday while the rest of us are respecting the social distancing recommendations," wrote one user. It wasn’t a crime against humanity by any means, but it suggested that the rules are different for senior politicians.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s transgression was worse. When the government sent a Challenger jet to B.C. to pick up Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough for an important Commons vote on coronavirus aid, Scheer decided to hitch a ride from Regina where he’d spent March Break with his family. He opted to bring his wife and five children. That filled every one of the plane’s nine seats, including a couch for three -- hardly an example of two-metre social distancing and one more example of selfish thinking.
As rural Ontario mayors and reeves from Kenora to Kincardine urged cottagers to stay home rather than potentially stress their small hospitals with COVID-19 outbreaks, Premier Doug Ford drove to his Muskoka cottage to check on the plumbing. A man who takes pains to urge isolation opted to make an exception for himself.
Public blowback didn’t phase him, because he and his wife hosted two of their four daughters who don’t live at home for Easter dinner. The government’s website strongly cautions against mixing people from different homes so that the virus has less chance of spreading.
Ford’s office did not answer questions on whether the Ford family sat around a dinner table together, but downplayed any impropriety. Of course it did. But he didn’t follow the rules and that, again, suggests a sense of privilege above the rest of us who face stiff fines if we’re caught too close to others.
Park rangers in Vancouver issued nearly 1,900 warnings about physical distancing last weekend. Groups of up to 20 people were spotted lounging at False Creek park and Kitsilano Beach, despite there being no change to directives to keep two metres apart.
Rule-breakers even operate from the privacy of their own homes. Federal employees vetting the millions of applications for emergency and employment-insurance (EI) benefits during the pandemic have been told to ignore most potential cases of cheating. Apparently, 200,000 applications have already been “red-flagged” as possibly fraudulent because of dubious claims of past employment income and other factors.
Qualtrough responded by saying violators will be pursued once the pandemic is over. People facing financial uncertainty can be forgiven for worry. And government aid is barely enough to tide many people over. But 200,000 bogus claims in less than two months is a bit much. Canadians are a generous lot, but gaming the system to this extent in these circumstances will not sit well with most.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump and Vice-president Mike Pence blatantly ignored advice on masking.
Trump was asked at a briefing why he wasn’t wearing a mask. His bonkers reply: "Somehow sitting in the Oval Office . . . (with) presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens – I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself." There hadn’t been an official visit to the White House in weeks, still hasn’t.
Then Pence visited Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic where, despite being advised of masking rules, he waltzed around mask-free. He said he wanted to visit with staff and patients and “look them in the eye” to thank and encourage them. The ridiculousness of that is obvious to anyone who is reading this with a mask on.
Later, Trump visited a 3M mask factory in Arizona and stood out as almost the only individual not wearing a mask despite a sign that read: "Attention: Face Mask Required in this Area. Thank You!"
After Trump’s valet and a close Pence aid tested positive, the two began getting tested every day while testing nation-wide lags dangerously behind what’s necessary to track this deadly virus. Trump’s worried now, he’s just not worried about anyone else.
The president is fond of saying the U.S. leads the world in numbers of tests conducted. Which is meaningless given its vast population -- third-largest in the world. What matters is tests per capita and on Tuesday, Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, told the Senate that the United States was doing twice the per-capita rate of testing than South Korea. While true, the comparison is irrelevant since at least 25 countries are testing more on a per-capita basis than the United States, including Canada.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, issued a chilling warning concerning Trump’s insistence on opening the U.S. economy. If done too early, “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.”
That you may not be able to control.
This is a battle of wills between the people of the world and the novel coronavirus. When leaders flaunt the rules they put us all in mortal danger by suggesting that it’s sometimes OK to break those rules.
A resurgence of this virus could make the existing situation seem mild by comparison. Until testing is ramped up to requirements, we are largely flying blind. This week in Canada (population 37 million), about 25,000 tests a day are being performed. Ontario now claims to be conducting 19,000 daily tests in a population of nearly 14 million people. Not good enough. Not by a long shot.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.