Provide a timely response. Ensure transparency. Tell the truth.
These are just some of the basic tenets of crisis communications, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his crisis response team would do well to take them to heart because, so far during the COVID-19 crisis, their statements and actions have missed the mark in every way.
Every Canadian who checks the news knows there has been ample opportunity for the government and its affiliated bodies to come up with a coherent plan to contain and mitigate the virus, and to effectively communicate those efforts to its citizenry.
Yet, rather than timely action, Canadians have witnessed indecision and stalling. Daily press conferences feature the same empty verbiage about how the federal government has this under control, along with an update on the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
But all chatter, little action and a rapidly growing number of infections has rightly led Canadians to the realization that our leaders are not doing the right things, even as they try to say the right words.
Many Canadians began to sense that lack of control early on, while they were entering into a then-undefined time of government-recommended self-isolation. Bored fingers naturally turned to Twitter feeds that led to #COVID19 and scores of posts decrying the utter absence of early screening at Toronto Pearson Airport and Vancouver International Airport.
A brother-in-law returned from Spain to “no screenings.” Someone else “arrived from Hawaii with pneumonia” only to find there was no one checking – or asking about – his/her health status. A Conservative MP posted that her cousin had just arrived in Vancouver from Japan – there was no screening, no information and no mention of self-isolation. Another tweet said, “Wife arrived after two weeks in Africa via Paris – Toronto – Calgary. No screening.” Still another, “My family just arrived in Vancouver via Hong Kong – walked right in with no screening at all.”
Four days after the declaration of a worldwide pandemic, contrary to what the government said, Canada had no screening measures in place for international travellers. Over and over, tweets shared this same scenario.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair responded to the tweets with one of his own, “strongly recommending” all travellers coming from outside of Canada self-isolate for 14 days.
Over the past few years, we’ve all witnessed how well government-by-Twitter has worked for Americans. But apparently this one tweet was supposed to function as a substitute for hands-on screening.
On that same day (March 14), Canada Border Services Agency asserted that “enhanced screening has been in place at all airports since February.” It stated that all passengers (Canadians or other) are being assessed on arrival, asked to self-isolate if coming from China, Iran or Italy, and asked to “consider” self-isolating for 14 days when arriving from other countries. Health screening questions will be asked. It also claims there is additional signage to inform travelers, along with pamphlets and surgical masks to be given to “travellers of concern.”
For weeks, the government told us that we’re prepared. Health Minister Patty Hajdu has never failed to champion our readiness, even claiming that Canada has been praised by the World Health Organization for its efforts and the “sophisticated systems that we have developed over the last 17 years as a result of our lessons learned from SARS.” As a result of this extensive experience with viruses, she claimed there “is a plan to protect the health and safety of Canadians at home.”
So where is our vastly superior and experienced plan?
And why did we hold the door open to all foreign travellers while asking Canadians on those very same planes to make personal and financial sacrifices to self-isolate?
This inexplicable bias led to exasperated tweets such as, “So let me get this straight. I return from Vegas and the BC government says I should self-quarantine for 14 days. Travelers from US and other countries have unlimited access to hotels, restaurants, etc?”
If this incongruity was blatantly obvious to us, as mere citizens, surely those in charge should have recognized the problem – and fixed it.
The Canadian government’s ongoing efforts to stem the spread included closing the Canadian border to all foreign citizens on March 18. Isn’t this similar to the old adage of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?
As stores close, schools empty, and Canadians stay at home, there appears to be a growing gap between the sacrifices we’re willing to make to stem this pandemic and the anemic efforts made by our government to protect us.
Susan Martinuk is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.