Justin Trudeau’s most significant display of leadership this week might have been inadvertent.
The fact that his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, contracted COVID-19 is unfortunate and no doubt scary for the Trudeau family. But it also underlined for the public the seriousness of the situation and put the prime minister in a position to practice what he’s preached by taking personal responsibility and isolating himself for 14 days.
“Of course it’s an inconvenience and somewhat frustrating,” Trudeau said. “We’re all social beings, after all, but we have to do this because we have to protect our neighbours and our friends, especially our more vulnerable seniors and people with pre-existing conditions.”
It might also provide some small measure of reassurance to a skittish public if/when the prime minister and his family emerge after two weeks with clean bills of health.
But this will not all be over in a couple of weeks.
This historic global and national crisis — a crisis that can’t be easily compared to any recent disruption — will not pass quickly or quietly. What has challenged Trudeau and other leaders over this frantic past week — the monumental task of effectively and responsibly responding to a global pandemic and all of the social and economic side effects that come with it — will continue to challenge them for weeks and months to come.
On that score, the last few days might offer just a hint of how difficult this will be, and how much will be demanded of political and health authorities.
That a crisis of some kind was taking shape has been apparent for some time — since mid-January at least, when China began taking extraordinary measures to deal with an outbreak. But what might have seemed like a distant rumble for several weeks became a deafening roar over the last five days.
First, the stock markets became jittery. Then came Donald Trump’s calamitous address to the American people. Then everything seemed to start happening at once — sports leagues suspended their seasons, major events were cancelled, celebrities announced their diagnoses, the prime minister’s wife reported experiencing flu-like symptoms.
On Wednesday morning, the Trudeau government announced a series of measures to deal with some of the effects of COVID-19’s spread. Twenty-four hours later, it seemed like that announcement had happened in a different era.
It is a feature, not a bug, of federalism that the responsibility for public health care is shared across governments. But in situations such as this, that can lead to varied responses. At times on Thursday there were different decisions being made in different provinces on school closures and public gatherings. British Columbia announced a rule for non-essential travel on Thursday, then a federal guideline on travelling abroad was made official on Friday.
In the current crisis, it’s also easy to make comparisons between countries — to see which nations have moved further and faster.
Combined with the clamour of social media, the COVID-19 outbreak has the potential to be treated as something like an arms race — with the nations moving fastest and most aggressively being seen as the ones taking the “best” approach, however oversimplified such conclusions tend to be.
The Trudeau government might get credit for not jumping at dramatic but inefficient responses. If the finer points of public policy are going to be watched closer than ever, however, government officials have to fully explain both what they’re doing and why they’re not doing something else. Platitudes won’t work.
But explaining things has rarely been a strength of the Trudeau government, which tends to prefer gauzy expressions of vision and values to details and descriptions.
In that respect, one of the government’s best assets right now might be Health Minister Patty Hajdu, the plain-spoken former director of a homeless shelter in Thunder Bay. On Wednesday, it was Hajdu who framed the potential infection rate.
On Friday, she stepped forward to explain the arguments against banning travellers from entering the country, pointing out that such measures don’t seem to have helped the situation in Italy. (It was also Hajdu who broke the tension somewhat with a crack about how she didn’t need Chrystia Freeland’s step-stool to see over the podium.)
The backbone of the public response in Canada has been the presence of senior health officials at the federal and provincial levels — the steady, serious and knowledgeable doctors who have been put front and centre for regular public updates. Speaking outside his official residence on Friday (with reporters positioned a safe distance away), Trudeau stressed the central role of expertise in the official effort.
“We will continue to make decisions based on recommendations of medical experts, public health authorities and top scientists,” he said. “We’re not closing the door to any further steps but we will make those decisions based on what science tells us.”
That’s reassuring in its own way — even if science can’t magically make this problem go away, and even if relying on science won’t absolve elected politicians of responsibility for any mistakes that are made.
Thursday was discombobulating. The government’s statements in question period were lacking in detail and the prime minister was in isolation. Friday was full of official activity.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodríguez, flanked by his opposition counterparts, announced from the foyer of the House of Commons that Parliament would be suspended until April. A half dozen ministers and the chief medical officer then appeared at the National Press Theatre to outline new measures to respond to the medical emergency. The prime minister emerged from Rideau Cottage around noon with promises of significant new government assistance. Then Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the governor of the Bank of Canada appeared at the National Press Theatre to explain further steps to support the economy.
“Addressing COVID-19 must be a Team Canada effort,” Trudeau said.
That national effort would no doubt benefit from the prime minister keeping all governments aligned, and including the opposition parties as much as possible.
But the potential points of stress and friction are many. What’s happening now might be compared to the experience of wartime — the sort of war that includes a massive domestic effort. In a matter of days, huge portions of Canadian society have shut down, if only temporarily.
But this is not a war. The foe is far less tangible — and the threat is much closer to home.
Public anxiety could turn to frustration. Systems and institutions have yet to be truly tested. Many Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable.
Resources will need to keep flowing. Communication will need to be regular and nimble. Governments may have to be creative. There will be ample opportunities to second-guess. Some will be quick to assign blame. And ultimately, Canadian officials and citizens can only control what occurs within our own borders.
If the stock markets are a useful barometer, the Trudeau government did reasonably well on Friday: after falling throughout the morning, the Toronto Stock Exchange picked up after noon and finished more than 1,200 points up for the day.
But that is just one afternoon. Trudeau might need to prepare Canadians for a long and difficult haul.
“Every order of government is working to stop the spread of the virus. Businesses and citizens are taking precautions. We have outstanding public health authorities who are doing an outstanding job,” Trudeau said at the conclusion of his prepared remarks on Friday. “We will get through this together.”
That’s likely the message that Canadians need to hear right now. It could be the spirit that carries the day.
But there are many such days to come. And many of those days are likely to be difficult.