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Federal Politics

Canada’s Three Pandemic Blunders

Trudeau’s loose grip has deadly consequences, health and law expert Amir Attaran tells The Tyee.

Andrew Nikiforuk 18 Nov 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

On Monday, Canada reported 6,115 infections and 74 deaths as COVID-19 continues to surge through the nation’s most populated provinces. Those statistics tell us only where the virus was smoldering two weeks ago. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer pronounces “fires are burning.”

Last week the nation’s fire chief, Justin Trudeau, implored the premiers and mayors to “to please do the right thing” and “act now to protect public health.”

In other words the federal government isn’t responsible for the current state of affairs.

Amir Attaran, a constitutional and public health expert at the University of Ottawa, considers Trudeau’s response pathetically inadequate.

“He is a callow and thoughtless leader,” says Attaran who is a lawyer and biomedical scientist as well as a regular contributor to Maclean’s.

Attaran, a persistent critic of the government’s response to the pandemic, now argues that the country is reaping what it sowed because of three major mistakes.

“The federal government has made a strategic error, a fiscal error and a legal error,” he explained in an interview with The Tyee.

1. The strategic blunder.

The strategic error is a basic one: Trudeau has refused to consider the pandemic a national emergency requiring national co-ordination, standards and goals.

Yet at the same time Trudeau’s Liberal party argues that climate change is a global threat that requires a co-ordinated national response.

“They want a national response for climate change yet can’t see it for a pandemic,” says Attaran.

To Attaran that double standard proves the Liberals are “a party with no functional philosophical core.”

The excuse that health is a provincial responsibility is simply an inaccurate reading of things, says Attaran. Even the Supreme Court has stated that, “health is a jurisdiction shared by both the provinces and the federal government.”

The court has added this clarification: "Health is subject to overlapping federal and provincial jurisdiction, and the provinces’ power to legislate in this field does not exclude Parliament’s authority to target conduct that constitutes a public health evil."

Or as Attaran quipped in a recent tweet:

“During a pandemic, Ottawa is constitutionally supreme if it chooses to be. Trudeau can force Kenney to clean the COVID bedpans, metaphorically speaking.”

In contrast to Canada other federations such as Australia, Germany and Switzerland met with their premiers or state leaders at the beginning the pandemic and organized a co-ordinated national response.

While Australia banned travelers from China last February, Canada dithered. Germany launched a single national testing strategy for COVID-19, but Canada is still struggling with one. And so on.

Attaran is not alone in this view. Ann Collins, the new president of the Canadian Medical Association, recently told CBC’s The Current “there has been a lack of collaboration and co-ordination” at all government levels. Sandy Buchman, the former CMA president, frequently offered the same assessment.

2. The fiscal fail.

Next comes the fiscal error. The federal government has forked over billions of dollars to the provinces over the course of the pandemic, and rightly so. “The feds have behaved like an insurer of the provinces of the last resort,” explains Attaran.

But they’ve failed to act as real insurers who make sure they are mitigating risk. An insurance company, for example, does not cut a cheque for fire insurance unless the homeowner has installed a smoke alarm and proper safeguards for the wood stove. In other words there are conditions.

But the federal government has attached no conditions to that flood of federal aid. “The deeper this thing becomes, the bigger the cheques. This is not insurance. This is indemnity,” says Attaran.

The money flows whether the provinces have supplied their citizens with adequate testing, data collection or rigorous contact tracing. “That’s a recipe for perpetual failure,” argues Attaran.

An accountable system would boldly state “that the provinces’ can’t have the money unless they fulfill the conditions attached,” argues Attaran. “The federal government needs to take the position that it gets something back for shoving billions out the door.”

3. The missed legal opportunity.

And finally the legal error. Last March Trudeau declared that he would not use the powers of the Emergencies Act or emergency powers laid out under the Constitution Act to enact measures to control the pandemic.

Attaran thinks that was a huge mistake causing a lack of co-ordination as well as a squandering of opportunities to eliminate the virus from Canadian borders. As a result the nation doesn’t really have a clear national pandemic policy to deal with a surging pandemic.

Using either act doesn’t mean taking over provincial health-care decision-making, says Attaran. But it would allow the federal government to enact national mask mandates, uniform data collection or measures for responding for surges.

Here’s what a rule for face masks would look like:

"Every person within Canada shall wear an approved face mask in an indoor public place, unless diagnosed by a medical practitioner with a medically incompatible disability."

A true national policy could also demand that provinces work within a co-ordinated national testing strategy.

It could also mandate successful policies like New Zealand’s “Go hard and go early” approach to outbreaks or surges. Or even an elimination policy.

Last but not least, it would allow the federal government to overrule provinces such as Alberta and Ontario that have allowed the virus to spiral out of control and threaten both public health and the federally funded health-care system.

In contrast to the ideological views of premiers Doug Ford and Jason Kenney, the virus has repeatedly shown that goals of public health and the economy are not different.

“There is no trade-off here between health and economics,” notes Yaneer Bar-Yam, a U.S. risk and health expert and a pioneering pandemic researcher. “Acting quickly will reduce the duration of both the disease and the economic harm.”

Most Canadians think the last time a government used its emergency powers was during the October Crisis of 1970 and so they assume any government would be reluctant to do so again.

But that perception is not true, says Attaran. The last time the Canadian government used its emergency powers under the Constitution Act for the greater good was 1975.

That year Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau invoked its powers to declare the Anti-Inflation Act to reduce inflation.

The Supreme Court upheld that decision arguing it did not invade provincial authority and was only temporary.

“Trudeau the elder was willing to use emergency powers to battle inflation,” says Attaran. “Trudeau the younger is not willing to use it to save tens of thousands of lives. He’s a feeble imitation of his father.”  [Tyee]

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