Don Martin: Mistakes were made, many of them, as 1st year of COVID-19 under Trudeau management ends
OTTAWA -- It’s been exactly one year since the Trudeau government finally got the message: Canada, we have a COVID-19 problem.
On March 4, 2020, after a month in denial, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a top-level cabinet committee aimed at curbing the spread of a virus rapidly taking hold in Canada.
It would take another two weeks for the prime minister to close all international borders.
Two more months would pass before chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam changed her mind, saying face masks should be worn indoors and that "a cotton shirt combined with rubber bands" would suffice.
And it would take an unfathomable 11 months (!!!) before the Trudeau government decreed international travellers had to produce a negative COVID-19 test before entering Canada by land or by air.
Mistakes were made. Many of them. Some emergency relief measures worked, procurement orders were placed but unreliably delivered while delays in implementing anti-viral medical protocols turned deadly.
But any assessment of Trudeau’s response to COVID-19 after one year in the fray must recognize the political challenge of coping with an unprecedented public health crisis twinned to an overnight economic collapse. There’s no leadership school for that sort of catastrophic mix.
After consulting medical and business leadership for their confidential assessments, this is the consensus about Trudeau’s best and worst moves in coping with COVID-19.
The most-mentioned medical failure was his delay in recognizing the spread of coronavirus through asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission. That was a killer, particularly in long-term care where support staff wandered between the sick and the healthy and between centres assuming there was no risk of spreading the virus.
The lingering belief that no symptoms equals no infection allowed hot-spot arrivals to breeze through airports without a reality check before they transmitted freely to unsuspecting populations.
Exacerbating that slow reaction was Tam’s curious stand against the need for face masks. Even two weeks after the pandemic was declared on March 11, Tam questioned their value. “Putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial obviously if you’re not affected,” she said.
Of course, it has been said too often already, but bears repeating, that provincial and civic government failures to deploy available rapid testing and unleash a whatever-it-takes effort into contact-tracing contributed greatly to the spread.
Trudeau’s economic reaction gets slightly more positive reviews, although spending hundreds of millions of dollars you don’t have in the name of a politically-unassailable pandemic attack plan isn’t the most daunting fiscal task.
Business leaders confide relief handouts should’ve been better targeted. Far too many Canadians received benefits they didn’t need or weren’t qualify to receive and won’t have to pay anything back.
The government also ignored existing delivery vehicles such as the Employment Insurance system, the better to grandly announce new programs which lacked proper scrutiny and required constant tinkering to fix.
Then there’s the bittersweet vaccine program – the pride of Canada ordering more vaccines per capita than any other country gave way to the discovery that the delivery was never contractually guaranteed, leaving us to fall far behind our allies in vaccine injections.
Entering his second year of pandemic political management on Wednesday, Trudeau kept his focus unchanged by announcing great gobs of new spending with a smile that suggests he knows his political hide is about to be saved by vaccines pouring into Canada.
The extension of wage and rent subsidies until June – while arguably necessary – and new research support adds almost $17 billion to the deficit and debt. By comparison, that’s almost twice the maximum annual deficit Trudeau vowed to allow in the 2015 election campaign.
With no date set for the first pandemic budget since 2019, one that’s expected to pass another $100 billion in recovery stimulus to the next generation of taxpayers, it looks increasingly like Trudeau will use a late spring budget to trigger a June election.
By then, his many mistakes in managing the pandemic will be forgotten.
That’s the bottom line.