Matt Gurney: Twenty months into COVID, the feds still flop in the face of emergency
Bill Blair dropped the ball at the airports in March of 2020. And he did it again this week on the B.C. border.
On Sunday March 15th, 2020, I realized for the first time — really realized, right in my bones — just how deeply screwed Canada was due to COVID-19.
Not the virus itself. I'd recognized the danger of COVID-19 early and saw what was coming. This was before we understood — at least fully understood — that the virus was lopsidedly deadly for the very elderly and infirm. I'd spent some dark hours just doing the math for different scenarios with infection rates and case fatality ratios, assuming fairly uniform deaths across age groups. The math sucked.
So I was certainly very much aware of the virus and worried about its possible toll. But I don't think I really grasped how utterly up the creek we were until Mélanie Joly tried to reassure Canadians. That's when I knew we were deep in it.
It seems a very long time ago now, but let me set the stage for you: this was just days after March 12th, the Thursday most North Americans seem to agree marked the real beginning of it all here — the day the NBA and NHL suddenly shut down and, in Toronto at least, the schools closed. Though the prime minister wouldn't officially ask Canadians to come home from abroad for a few more days, thousands were landing at our airports each day. The federal government had said that enhanced screening had been established to meet them. Sadly, this wasn't exactly, you know, true. I knew this for a fact: I'd been out of the country with my wife and children, arriving home the day before Joly's press conference. I'd expected screening, questions, temperature checks, pamphlets, PA announcements — to be blunt about this, I expected a gigantic hassle. Hell, I wanted to be hassled and sternly ordered home for 14 days of isolation. Nope! Here's how I described our arrival in a column in the National Post:
[We] were processed by an automated kiosk with a touchscreen (that is hopefully being regularly cleaned). It scanned our passports and took photos of my wife and I — our children, being under 12, were exempt from photographing. Alongside the usual questions about value of purchased goods and whether we’ll be visiting a Canadian farm, there was a question asking whether we had recently visited Iran, Italy or China’s Hubei province. I (honestly) clicked no. The kiosk printed out a form, which I handed to a customs officer. He glanced at it, asked where we were returning from, looked at our passports for the barest moment, and welcomed us home. [The] entire process took barely six minutes.
No questioning about symptoms. No temperature screening. No information about mandatory 14-day self-isolation. No signage, or at least not obvious signage. No multi-language pre-recorded PA announcements with public health details. My wife did see a pamphlet listing COVID-19 symptoms, but nothing about self-isolation was noted. (Photos have circulated on Twitter claiming to show updated pamphlets given out at airports containing self-isolation information; we did not receive one on Saturday night.)
Our hassle-free arrival, to be clear, was not what was supposed to be happening. Worse, the federal government really seemed to have no idea what the facts on the ground actually were. Bill Blair was tweeting out complete nonsense that had absolutely no relation to what was actually happening. Provinces and cities were surging their own people to the airports to assert some order, since the federal government was clearly completely incapable of getting a handle on the situation, probably because it was blissfully unaware that there was a situation.
So that was bad.
But the next day, our first day back, was when it got really scary.
Joly had been at a cabinet meeting, and afterward, tried to project confidence and calm. She was full of smiles when she addressed the media, saying that there'd be announcements to come the next day. The Globe and Mail's Marieke Walsh, doing a vastly better job containing her temper than I would have, demanded to know why Canadians sitting at home were being teased about an announcement instead of just told what the announcement was. Joly had no real answer to that really, really good question, and just tried to smile her way through it, until David Lametti tried to save her by lavishing praise on the leadership of ... Patty Hajdu, our then-health minister.
Read that paragraph again. Joly. Lametti. Hajdu. It's a miracle any of us are still alive.
Anyway, I was safely home, on day one of our 14-day isolation (that actually became hundreds of days, thanks to the first Toronto lockdown). I clearly remember watching that press conference. And it was scary. Not because a new deadly virus was loose in my country, and not even because the federal leadership didn't know what to do or what was coming. No one did. What was really, really frightening about all this — what I still haven't been able to put out of my mind — is that the federal government didn't even know what it was doing right then.
Forget forecasting the future or getting ahead of the threat. It wasn't even aware enough of the present to appreciate that the situation at the airports had gotten away from it, and once they began to figure it out, their idea was to announce an announcement for the next day. Ottawa lacked, in the vernacular, “situational awareness” — and things were obviously only going to get worse, as they surely did. They didn’t seem particularly fussed about how far behind they already were, either. These were not people cut out to manage a crisis of the scope COVID-19 posed.
It turns out, they still aren't all that great at this sort of thing.
A few days ago, the federal government announced it was waiving the requirement that Canadians crossing back into the country show a negative PCR test at land-border crossings if their purpose of travel was obtaining essential supplies, like fuel and food. This is to aid the regions of British Columbia devastated by the recent storms, flooding and landslides. The B.C. transportation network is still a shambles, supply chains are snapped and it’s going to take weeks to sort out the logistical nightmare, even assuming the storms moving in at this very moment do no further damage. In many communities, it is easier to obtain essential supplies by going to the United States. The federal government announced the waiver on the weekend, British Columbians travelled south to shop on Monday, and upon their return, were fined for not having negative PCR tests. One poor woman was dinged $5,700.
The federal response to this? Basically, it's "Whoops!"
"As it sometimes happen [sic] when there is a change in operational guidance, a transition period may lead to some inconsistencies," is what the CBSA told Narcity, in a statement so magnificently vague and passive it will no doubt become the new federal template for how to acknowledge a fuck-up. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair announced on Tuesday that he had "re-clarified" his order to the CBSA, which is the sort of thing that a competent minister in a competent government probably wouldn't need to do, but here we are. It would be nice to get urgent orders to federal officials during massive disasters right the first time, but that seems to be a bit too ambitious for our current federal leadership.
Hey, we were warned. It was beyond Blair's ability at the airports in 2020, and it's beyond his ability at the B.C. border today.
Oh, and if you need any more proof that the feds are still not exactly on the ball, Blair was asked if the government would at least commit to having the wrongly levied fines dropped. He said that's up to Public Health.
A federal cabinet minister really isn't sure if a fine levied on Canadians who were doing what the federal government said they could do, and had changed the law to enable them to do, will be returned.
Our minister of emergency preparedness, it seems, may not really be a details guy.
But it's not just Blair. This is way too big a problem to lay at the feet of one guy. (Though it's certainly fair to wonder if he's helping.) The Canadian federal government — and yeah, a whack of our provincial ones, too, but that's for other columns — is simply not capable of responding quickly and effectively to fast-moving crises. At best, it will show up later with huge cheques to ease the pain of disasters it failed to prepare for, failed to see coming, and failed to effectively manage once they arrived. The COVID-19 pandemic was the ultimate test for Canadian federal emergency management, and we flopped. Twenty months later, another disaster has struck, and the federal government still hasn't figured out how to communicate with itself.
There's a reason we keep throwing the military at these problems — they're the only ones in federal service who seem consistently able to handle big problems with general competence (so long as they don't involve sexual misconduct among its own members, because when it does, they start ripping their competency guidelines right out of the Joly/Blair playbook). But the military is small, underfunded and overworked. We can't keep expecting it to bail out the rest of the federal government. But what else can we do? This is a problem that's now so serious, a rot so deep and pervasive, that I'm not sure the federal government is even capable of fixing itself. At least without accidentally fining itself as it tries.
On March 15th, 2020, as I watched Joly try to smile her way through an absolute trainwreck of a press conference, it became clear to me that none of these people are up to the job of managing this country during an emergency. Emergencies abound these days, and we’re still led by mostly the same people — indeed, Joly recently snagged a big promotion. These profound competency gaps were scary then. They’re scarier now. If COVID didn’t force them to up their game, what would? What could?
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