Canada

Rex Murphy: How COVID-19 taught the public to distrust the authorities

We discovered there was not one set of rules for all, and that even the strictest medical advice could be trumped by political considerations

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam appears via video conference as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference about COVID-19, in Ottawa on May 4, 2021. Tam's medical advice has changed radically since the start of the pandemic, writes Rex Murphy.

Early on during the pandemic, it was easy to accept that the politicians, guided by their selected cadre of experts, knew what they were doing. And there was likewise in the public mind a considerable reservoir of trust in their pronouncements, which was not diminished if — in the very early days — a caution or a recommendation put out one week was altered, revised, or even contradicted by a caution or recommendation the week following.

So for example the first request of the public was to put up with a shutdown of two weeks “to slow down the curve.” Certainly no one was happy about it, but everyone gave it a quick “yes.” Even when there was something of a small panic about the shortage of ventilators (which probably should have been on medical stockpile), that did not really disturb the public’s confidence.

We heard from Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam that “Canada’s risk is much, much lower than that of many countries. (COVID) is going to be rare.” Alas, we have learned throughout the past nearly two years that that declaration was a wild and very, very wrong surmise.

That declaration was a wild and very, very wrong surmise

And as the anxieties of the population began to swell and the question of whether face masks would be a useful or necessary safeguard, at a time when face masks were not abundantly available here in Canada, Tam was ready with advice on those as well: “Putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial, obviously if you’re not infected,” she said. But when, just seven days later, the same front figure of the federal response to COVID-19 did a full 180-degree turn and returned to her podium to urge the benefit, if not the necessity of face masks, you could sense the turbulence in the public’s confident reception in what the political and medical authorities were urging and ordering.

It would take the whole column and a few more besides to catalogue the declarations and decrees which came down from Ottawa only to be — same phrase — altered, revised, or even contradicted a week or month after their initial commanding iteration.

But these pronouncements, uttered in the first instance with great authority and then reversed with even greater aplomb, began to grate. There was a succession of them, right up to the present moment, on whether we should have travel bans, whether there should be quarantines, whether people landing in our airports from other countries should be getting tested, or whether it was OK that some were just landing, picking up their baggage and going their way.

  1. None

    Rex Murphy: You want to eat that doughnut here? Show me your papers

  2. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joins other G7 leaders as they watch a performance by the RAF Red Arrows aerobatic team in Cornwall on June 12, 2021.

    Rex Murphy: Did you spot the hypocrite(s) at the G7 summit?

Then there were the discrepancies in the application of closures and lockdowns. “Necessary” services were allowed to operate — grocery stores, trucking, and curiously, Big Box stores — but “unnecessary” services were to close. Gyms, barbershops, shoe stores, indeed any retail outlet, big or small, that didn’t belong in a chosen category, were to close totally. And people were urged or ordered to stay away from work, unless of course they were, prime example, clerks in the grocery and food outlets.

There was another discrepancy, too, this one financial, and it never has, to this moment, received the full attention it should have. All civil servants, teachers, those on any public contract, remained on permanent payroll, while those in the private sector — even with the CERB payments and other federal assistance — were being brutalized by the closures.

This was nowhere more obviously than in the restaurant and hospitality industries, but almost every trade, from taxi-driving to sales, was hit very hard as well.

While people kept hearing the Liberal mantras — “we all in this together, and we’ve got your back “ — it was clear some backs could claim more shielding (and got it) than others, and “all” and “together” did not quite carry the weight both terms should aspire to.

It was clear some backs could claim more shielding than others

But there was one discrepancy that towered above all the rest. This was made evident in early June, 2020, when gatherings of thousands of people were permitted to protest the death of George Floyd despite the fact lockdowns were universal in North America and people normally caught amassing in groups larger than five or 10, other than with immediate family members, were either chastened, charged, ridiculed or all three. “How selfish they are” was the cry against these ‘lawbreakers,” a cry we’re hearing much more vehemently about those reluctant or opposed to mandated vaccinations and passports. I’ll deal with that in the next column.

This was the very period when antifa was roaring nightly through some North American cities, and the Black Lives Matter movement was at its public relations pinnacle; the period when “taking a knee” was the curious posture of rebellion, and demonstrations in the U.S., and yes here in Canada, too, were almost daily.

That’s also when a veritable multitude of “medical authorities” — 1,200 of them in fact — thought it both necessary and enlightened to issue a major media statement. They posted a letter — not a Luther at the Wittenberg church door moment its signatories evidently thought it to be.

“We created (this) letter in response to emerging narratives that seemed to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health because of COVID-19 … We wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response.” (My emphasis.)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kneels during a Black Lives Matter protest on Parliament Hill against the death of George Floyd, on June 5, 2020 in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kneels during a Black Lives Matter protest on Parliament Hill against the death of George Floyd, on June 5, 2020 in Ottawa. Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP

Now was that not Interesting,? Protest demonstrations as public health prophylactics — better than vaccines?

The point was then explicitly made: “We do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission.” Everyone else was told to stay at home, avoid congregating, people walking dogs in the wrong places were arrested, barber shops were shut down .. but here were “medical authorities” essentially saying that gathering in the thousands, for the right cause, “was … vital to public health.”

Up here in shutdown-mad Canada, there were a number of those “vital to public health” protests, and one was attended by no less than the prime minister himself, who duly “took a knee.”

This was the moment that skepticism of the authorities was powerfully launched and the public recognized there was not one set of rules for all, and that even the strictest medical advice could easily, almost triumphantly, be trumped by political considerations.

More on this in my next column.

National Post

The big issues are far from settled. Sign up for the NP Comment newsletter, NP Platformed.

Football news:

Tuchel about the League Cup: Every tournament is important, we do not prioritize. Chelsea always plays to win
Miranchuk looks like a foreign body. It would be better to let him go back to Russia. Italian journalist about Atalanta midfielder
Barcelona's priority is Klopp's appointment. His contract with Liverpool is until 2024
Milan is ready to more than double Teo's salary to 3.5 Million euros a year
Al-Sadd Xavi has not lost 34 matches in the Qatar League - this is a club record. The league record is 41 games
Nagelsmann about Hernandez: He is in a good mood, there is no feeling that he is worried about prison
Tuchel on the victory over Southampton: A tense match. I liked Chelsea's energy