Canada During Covid-19: A Third Layer of Silver

PM Justin Trudeau, to the nation from outside his residence. (Photo from Maclean’s magazine, Canada’s national newser.)

[6- minute read. This is Part 3 the “Silver Linings Playbook” series, looking for Canadian good news amid the Covid-19 crisis. Part 1 is here, Part 2 down there.]

The slowdown that many of the fortunate among us have enjoyed – count me front and centre in that squadron – is not so obvious a benefit when we consider one’s country as a whole. Inevitably, and properly, the cost to the national economy receives scrutiny: how can workers in precarious jobs (or the under-employed) be supported, local businesses be sustained? And then imagine how many times the problems are multiplied in the majority of countries that are, to varying degrees, well behind Canada with respect to economic and social stability, particularly their health care systems, AND are not blessed with Canada’s combination of geographic massiveness and fewer than 40 million folks! And we all know: the pandemic is no picnic here, either, but imagine how awful things have been, or will be, in [insert your favourite fragile state here]!

All that pertains to illness and economic strangulation having been said – and I just read a New York Times piece in which Nicholas Kristof gets inside access at New York hospitals, so I’m not blind to blackened horizons – still, there *are* silver linings, and even in a careful, fearful nation state they’re not hard to find. Here are some of the Canadian beacons amid the gloom:

  • UNITED POLITICIANS. Sure, there’s some sniping, but the volume of dissent is much reduced. In our Parliamentary system, in which the elected government is shadowed (or hounded) by “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”, there is audibly less emphasis on opposition than on the preceding adjective. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, an arch-Conservative, has had public praise for Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau and members of his government! (My respect level for Ford is increasing; I might have expected him to be foot-dragging, ignoring scientists and muttering about “getting back to business as usual”, but he’s been a strong, sane and thoughtful voice, from what I’ve heard. He seems to be responding smartly, and with a humane compassion I wasn’t sure he could summon, to the needs of the time, and not holding on to partisan dogma. I’m pleasantly shocked, to be honest.)
  • CONFIRMATIONS: We can be oh-so-careful, maddeningly slow and frustratingly divided in our national conversation, but one strong silver lining is the continued reassurance that Canucks are actually reasonably well-governed, and have a clear tendency to often do the right thing, especially when the chips are down.

  • THE CONTRAST IS FLATTERING. AGAIN. In Canada, we often have to beware the Smug-Mug, how quick we can be to congratulate ourselves on being a “distinct society”. Some fresh scandal, a fit of excess or the next bit of bewildering foolishness in what one of our columnists termed “The Excited States of America” prompts head-shaking and the occasional smirk. Of course, we routinely err on the other side, too, slavishly imitating whatever the Yanks do because hey, they’re big and proud and rich and, like, Hollywood! Wall Street! Celebrity humans! Full Disclosure: I am prone to this reflexive Canadian smugness, and try to guard myself. But I must say that it is *good* to be reminded so loudly that The American Way – with all its evident talent, stupendous invention, and many varieties of personal and national excellence – actually is plagued by societal sinkholes, apparently undrainable swamps of injustice, rusting ideas and corrupted institutions. Just because we’re smaller and nicer doesn’t mean that our ways aren’t sometimes superior. (Whew, that feels better!)
  • MEDICARE WORKS! And maybe we’ll come out of this with increased motivation to not keep on starving one of the best things we’ve ever devised. (Yes, and also our system of public education, under siege but still a treasure. Yes, I was a teacher.)
  • LET’S GET RADICAL, RADICAL / I WANNA GET RADICAL… (Please pardon an ancient Olivia Newton-John reference!)¹ Before Covid-19, we heard more and more talk about the concept of a Universal Basic Income. This seems, suddenly and (perhaps?) irreversibly, to present itself as closer to a mainstream idea, since all our economic and societal assumptions are questionable during this sort of crisis. “Impossible” yields the right-of-way to “worth considering”. Free tuition for undergraduate study, as another crazy example, just doesn’t seem so nutty in the “new normal”. When politicians of different stripes are rattled enough, new ideas can germinate and a consensus may grow. There’s not as much time to feed one’s policy hobbyhorses.
¹ 1981. That was a painful video rewatch. I will not judge you for not linking to it. I made the link, but didn’t even get past the first chorus.

Dr Tam, centre, flanked by Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and PM Justin Trudeau.

  • SCIENTISTS ARE STARS. Politicians (still mainly male, though nearly 30% of Members of Parliament, a new high, are women) are taking a willing back seat to the medical authorities (a startling number of whom are female). As I mentioned among the Ottawa silver linings, we are taking our national marching orders from a thoroughly brilliant cadre of female medical authorities. Our national Chief Medical Officer, appointed by a female Minister of Health who was Actually a Doctor (!)², is Theresa Tam – south-Asian-born epidemiologist as national hero! Vancouver’s, Toronto’s and Ottawa’s chief medical officers are women, as are most of their provincial counterparts. Even their fashion choices are studied and admired! (Wait. Why are we obsessed with the clothes worn by serious, hyper-competent women? My consolation: most of us aren’t, I don’t think. We just love the way these women carry themselves. Such dignity, humility, honourable expertise and fiercely eloquent intelligence. I sound like a fanboy. Okay!) ³
² This was Dr. Jane Philpott, the former Cabinet Minister who recently put her scrubs back on to help out with a local Covid-19 outbreak in Toronto. (And yes, this story is more complicated – but I haven’t the time for the grey and washed-out threads behind the silver linings, sorry!)
³ And since I’m here: did you that Canada’s greatest female hockey player, the astounding four-time Olympic gold-medallist and six-time World Champion Hayley Wickenheiser, is, in addition to working in player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs and as an outspoken member of the International Olympic Committee’s  Athletes’ Commission, is now in medical school? I don’t know if that’s a Covid-19 silver lining or not, but it makes me giddy with admiration.

So yes, bright spots exist, against the grey landscape of a Canadian medical shutdown. They hearten me. Writing about them lifts me. And one of the most encouraging aspects of this is that Canada has developed a longstanding reputation – not an unblemished one, but earned, to some degree – as a country committed to internationalism. I can’t write about my nation, ANY nation’s, response to a global pandemic without this closing reference to Canada’s place in the world. The last piece in this “Silver Linings Playbook” series will be from a global perspective. In that essay, I will insist that there are extremely hopeful signs arising from the world’s responses to the pandemic. (It’s a relatively new word, in common usage. It means something like “an epidemic that goes everywhere”.) Are there worrying developments on the international scene? Um, YEAH.

At home, in our towns and cities, and on Earth, there are outbreaks of selfishness, pique, ignorance and spite. Yes, indeed. But they are not the rule; they are the exception. However, at the planetary level, when powerful people hold levers they can use to their own advantage, or that of their privileged caste, the consequences can be devastating. I return, over and over, to the writings of the great pioneering architect of global community-building, Shoghi Effendi. In 1936, he was writing powerful warnings against “unfettered national sovereignty” and the narrow viewpoints and destructive tendencies that it promotes. And here we are in 2020, and against the backdrop of Covid-19 we can see all the dark patches, but also the bright collaborations.

That’s for another day now, but as I trumpet some of the best of the Canadian response, I realize that so much of it has been founded not only in recognizing that all our citizens and jurisdictions are united on “Team Canada”, but also in this: nationally, we act as if it’s a global pandemic (‘cuz it is!) and needs coordinated and intense planetary strategies and cooperation (‘cuz it does!). And Shoghi Effendi had no complaints about a “sane and intelligent patriotism”. At our best, that’s what Canadians exhibit. Well. Except maybe when it comes to hockey.

NOTE: Look for images of “Team Canada” and you’ll find approximately 73,000 pictures of our national (men’s) hockey team. Surprise! But we use it for Olympic teams, basketball teams, foreign political junkets and now, in a way that I admit moves me, to invoke the spirit of unity that prevails here, at least for now. We’re all on Team Canada, they say. And for many of us, there couldn’t be anything that we ever wanted much more than that.

Comments (2)

  1. Michael Freeman

    Team Canada. Amazingly, in Ontario, both Federal and Provincial governments seem to be working towards the same end: public safety and the public good, with past differences aside. After this pandemic begins to wane, the question will be, “Why can’t that be the norm?” Theresa Tam has come under fire, not by Trudeau or Ford., but by those conservative shills that cannot leave their talking point of attack to see the thoughtful points of unity against a common enemy.
    There are reasons to hope. There are reasons to worry. But the calm of proactive procedures will help many to reach the other side. I worry most for the elders and seniors, especially those caught in long-term care homes. The one thing that had better come out of this is increased inspection, increased funding, increased resourcing, increased oversight and decreased privatization of LTC homes. That needs to be a national concern, a provincial concern, a regional concern and a priority of all.
    Maybe we are not ready for one world government, but we had better consider a world approach to pandemic response and control of infectious diseases, or we will be forced to deal with this type of situation on an increasingly frequent basis.

  2. Lester Clark

    Good insight – Canada is doing well.

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