Courageous, when she told the country that successive governments had neglected their responsibilities by not investing in pandemic preparation. Dangerous, because at the end of the day, Canadians will blame current governments when things go wrong.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on April 6, 2020.
OTTAWA—Health Minister Patty Hadju made a courageous and dangerous statement last week.
Courageous, when she told the country that successive governments had neglected their responsibilities by not investing in pandemic preparation.
Dangerous, because at the end of the day, Canadians will blame current governments when things go wrong.
The general strategy in politics is never complain, and never explain. That is based on the belief that the more information is out there, the more it can be twisted by political opponents to become disinformation.
The general rule of thumb in communication is that less is better.
But these are no ordinary times.
And Hajdu is no ordinary politician. In the daily briefings she is clear, concise, informed and not overly verbose. Like Dr. Theresa Tam, Hajdu transmits an aura of believability.
The Hajdu admission may be out of step with her political colleagues but it reflects what is happening out there in the real world of hospitals, nursing homes and health delivery across the country.
The overreaction to Hajdu’s admission also underscores why governments hesitate to publish modelling projections of worst-case scenarios. Those projections have not been available in all parts of Canada.
Ontario and British Columbia have promised or delivered modelling projections. Some other provinces have not. And the federal government is trying to synthesize disparate data from different provinces, as some experienced the virus onset earlier than others.
According to the premier of New Brunswick, all provinces should be collating the same information, but that is apparently not the current case.
Canada’s chief public health officer suggests that building projects too far in advance is not useful because it is simply not accurate.
Information is vital in the fight to engage all Canadians, but too much information could cause panic or complacency.
American President Donald Trump went from claiming we should all be out celebrating at Easter to suggesting that a quarter of a million Americans may die because of the virus. The American newscasts reported last week that their military has been tasked with securing 100,000 body bags for the dead.
The United States is also claiming that statistics from other countries, specifically China, have been underreported.
Hajdu debunked that claim during a press conference last week, saying that the World Health Organization is gathering all the pertinent data from multiple jurisdictions, and there is no evidence that China understated its deaths. According to Hajdu, the current numbers in that country are actually less than what was originally reported.
But each country is doing its best to reassure its own citizens and position its response to the pandemic as in keeping or superior to that of other jurisdictions.
For the past several weeks, Canadian politicians from all levels of government having been reassuring the country that we have enough supplies of masks, gowns, and ventilators to meet the upcoming crush facing hospital emergency departments.
Front-line workers are living a whole different situation.
A hospital in Ottawa recently told their medical staff that protective material would not be available in the delivery ward as the normal protective devices were being repurposed to fight the COVID-19 battle.
The federal and provincial governments have been pulling out all the stops to secure protective supplies for the medical front lines. With a $2-billion purchase order, Ottawa is locking down supplies, and provinces are even sending planes to secure materials that have been ordered from international sources.
Their efforts include public bulk purchasing and financial support for Canadian companies to replace their normal lines of business with COVID-19-fighting materials to join this war on the coronavirus.
Irving is retooling operations to make hand sanitizers. Bauer is switching from hockey masks to hospital masks.
Stanfields is making medical gowns and protective apparel where the company usually focuses on underwear. Canada Goose has moved away from their iconic down filled jackets to medical gowns.
Canadian medical suppliers are partnering with auto companies to speed up production of desperately needed life-saving ventilators.
Transformations take time. Frontline workers are scrambling to protect themselves by recycling materials and seeking out any sources they can. Some make their own protective masks, and others are trying to source protective equipment in whatever way they can.
But they also face a race against time and a global hunt for similar products. The issue of supply is not just a Canadian problem.
“Many governments around the world are going to be reflecting on this issue,” Trudeau admitted last week.
Pandemic reflection yes, but flattening the virus comes first.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.