Don Martin: Borderline incompetence gives way to a common sense evolution in the fight against Omicron
To return from the U.S., as I did last week, is to see the federal government’s Omicron-blocking efforts unmasked as borderline incompetence.
The Canadian customs area was a super-spreader event jammed with a thousand bleary-eyed passengers in multiple zig-zagging lineups less than a jabbed elbow apart.
Clearly overwhelmed border officers were not checking vaccinations, PCR tests or ArriveCAN apps, none of which had been examined at the U.S. departure gate either, with some travellers being directed into the unfortunately-named triage line for further questioning.
And there was no sign – not even a room where it could be done - of any government-ordered testing of arrivals from beyond the United States. One Ottawa man I talked to had flown for 26 hours from Kenya via Paris having only had his boarding pass and passport checked.
Now, it’s possible my arrival was just a freak rush hour and not a much-quieter more vigilant norm.
But to watch the multi-levelled goings-on Wednesday, as the Omicron noose was tightened symbolically by the federal government with Ontario going aggressive on boosters, large crowd bans and rapid testing, was to see signs of hope for a common sense evolution in coping with COVID-19 in Canada.
While harsher responses were reportedly on the table in the prime minister’s conference call with premiers, the feds opted for a travel advisory instead, putting a series of discouraging nouns and verbs to international travel plans for the next four weeks.
With that action, the feds clearly realized Canada cannot test every arrival by air without causing total airport paralysis. They seem to sense they can’t reverse the Christmas travel frenzy, which is already throttling up. And they surely know to mothball the airlines again would trigger bankruptcies requiring a massive bailout to fix.
But, it will be seen for what it is – advice. And for passengers with non-refundable getaways booked or destination weddings to attend, it will be ignored.
Still, beyond this flailing-about, optics-only federal response to the many unknowns about the Omicron variant, there were dangled hints that Canadians may soon be treated as self-reliant adults instead of rule-breaking children forced to behave under big brother’s unblinking stare.
For starters, public health officials admitted a complete travel ban would be pointless given how the rapid escalation of cases is occurring inside Canadian borders.
Both chief public health officer Theresa Tam and deputy Howard Njoo repeatedly shrugged off reporter questions over why the drawbridge wasn’t being raised to all travel, preferring to focus on why the Omicron spread will only be broken with proven prevention methods.
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That means getting back to basics, which worked best through the first four waves, they said. You know them by now: masking, hand washing, social distancing, smaller gatherings, rapid testing, good ventilation and an all-out effort to get boosters into adults and two doses into kids.
It was some recognition that, subject to change without notice if this variant mutates into a killer, Canadians might rebel against another round of total lockdowns, restaurant closures, family reunion vetoes and ridiculous park shutdowns. The 2020 era when bylaw enforcement officers wielded supreme power to ticket parents for taking their kids to the closed playground is long gone.
In other words, we’re mercifully pivoting back to the initial goal when the rallying cry was to "flatten the curve" in order to keep empty beds in ICUs instead of chasing rainbow fantasies that this insidious virus can be exterminated by washing your vegetables.
So here’s hoping the feds embrace realistic responsibilities in this fourth - or is it fifth? - COVID-19 wave: Secure the kid doses and adult boosters, get millions of rapid testing kits into provincial hands and keep the economy flowing through a border as immune as possible to variant invasions.
While I’m hearing whispers of more border controls coming on Friday, one hopes they’re just tinkering with existing testing rules rather than launching a radical lurch into sovereign self-isolation, which would do nothing to detour the virus from its avalanche sweep into every corner of Canada.
It’s time vaccinated Canadians were allowed to chart their common sense prevention path through this never-ending pandemic, leaving anti-vaxxers to decide the right time to call an ambulance if Omicron fills up their lungs.
That’s the bottom line...