Liberal COVID-fighting honeymoon is over

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The longer we are in lockdown, the more Liberals will lose. With an under-functioning Parliament and a flattened COVID curve, the government needs to pivot quickly, or any hope of an early election majority may simply be wishful thinking.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 15, 2020.

OTTAWA—The Liberal COVID-fighting honeymoon is over.

Last week two fatal blows were delivered.

One came from the opposition which banded together to derail tough government legislation on COVID subsidy fraudsters.

The second blow was the picture of the prime minister on bended knee attending a crowded protest with thousands of people at the same time his government is saying you can only gather in groups of five or 10.

Justin Trudeau’s presence at the rally sent an important message about how Canadians need to tackle the issue of systemic racism. He was right to be there.

But his government is off the mark with continued lockdowns, interprovincial travel warnings and international travel bans.

His presence at the protest sent a message in direct conflict to the one delivered daily by public health officials across the country, who are still placing major restrictions on group gatherings for fear of viral transmission.

Until recently, we were told that wearing masks in public would not be helpful. Now we are being told it is a mandatory part of public distancing.

The only people who seem to think things are generally going well must be in a parliamentary bubble.

When asked about the continuing travel ban last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “The arrangement we have today is working and it is working very well.”

Millions of Canadians who have lost their jobs and/or remain huddled in their homes by government fiat, may not agree with her.

A full-page plea in The Globe and Mail was literally begging the government to reconsider its current lockdown strategy.

The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable enlisted more than 100 companies to support their move to eliminate the 14-day international travel quarantine and reopen the southern border.

As the ad pointed out, the travel/hospitality sector employs 1.8 million people and contributes $102-billion to the Canadian economy.

Similar backlash is happening against travel restrictions in other parts of the world. The United Kingdom is being sued by airline companies for its decision to retain a 14-day quarantine for international travellers who enter the country.

Last month, air travel in the United States fell by 96 per cent, reaching its lowest level in the history of passenger data collection.

Who are the most vulnerable victims of the interprovincial travel and tourism lockdowns? It is the young people, who are facing the bleakest job market.

The May unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 29.5 per cent. For those planning to return to school in the fall, the number jumped to a shocking 42.1 per cent. And the problem is not just the unemployed. It is also the mental burden of isolation facing single people working from home.

A close colleague is a millennial whose job was moved to his home at the beginning of the crisis. He was told last week that his office would not reopen until next March. His response was to make an appointment with a mental health professional because the news was so depressing.

It is not surprising that young people are turning their backs on the self-distancing rules of federal and provincial governments. At a younger age, people need more social stimulation. Isolation can kill as quickly as COVID with mental breakdowns and suicides, where the young are most vulnerable.

This lockdown is especially tough on people living alone. Does it make sense to prevent family visits for those who are currently living in long-term care facilities? The loneliness that comes from not seeing a familiar face for months should be considered when quarantines are extended simply based on COVID.

In Ottawa alone, there is now a two-year waiting list for medical procedures cancelled because of COVID. Some postponements are life-threatening, including heart and cancer surgeries that can be fatal if left untreated.

There is going to be a higher death toll in other areas because of the focus on COVID.

The air of parliamentary collegiality which has characterized pandemic relations went out the window because opposition parties are now sensing the vulnerability of the government’s current position.

In the first two months, the prime minister’s daily press conferences were critically acclaimed. Now he is being attacked for spending all his time in scrums while Parliament is mostly muzzled.

The longer we are in lockdown, the more Liberals will lose.

With an under-functioning Parliament and a flattened COVID curve, the government needs to pivot quickly, or any hope of an early election majority may simply be wishful thinking.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.