Coronavirus Threat: Competent Updates Needed to Keep Canadians Informed

March 4, 2020 Updated: March 4, 2020


So this coronavirus threat is real. Not apocalyptic, apparently. But real. And Canada’s doing… who knows? Not us, and if our government knows, it’s not telling. As usual.

The Canadian government has become deplorably adept at dispensing content-free pseudo-information. Like published “Itineraries” for our prime minister that, in the name of open government, tell us nothing whatsoever. At least not on purpose.

Saturday’s said tersely “Private.” Which accidentally blurted out that Justin Trudeau didn’t think anything was happening sufficiently serious to go into the office, like say blockades or this virus thing. Except it might have been untrue, like Monday’s “Private meetings,” when in fact he was flying to Toronto to give a public speech to a Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada convention, trailing CO2 and three ministers.

As for the Wuhan virus specifically, “Private meetings” would be an improvement. I’m still on the Parliamentary Press Gallery distribution list, despite constantly mocking the rubbish that gets sent out. And there was one notice Monday that on Tuesday the Chief Public Health Officer and her deputy “will hold a media availability to provide an update on coronavirus disease.” But mostly it was the usual prattle about “MP Jaime Battiste to make an announcement regarding Cape Breton’s growing digital sector” and “Government of Canada financial support will enable Bas-Saint-Laurent hotel establishment to modernize its rooms.” (Real examples from Tuesday.) Which might accurately reflect what our government is thinking about.

They may be telling us nothing about COVID-19 and our preparations for it because they know nothing and aren’t even curious. Which brings me to Anne Applebaum’s recent observation in The Atlantic that “Epidemics, like disasters, have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they impact.”

Naturally it turned out to be mostly that right wing is bad and left wing is good. Except, to her credit, that “The Chinese have already paid a high price for the secretiveness of their system, and for the top-down bureaucratic culture that led many, initially, to conceal the disease.”

Ah yes, a high price for secretiveness. And Canada’s government, while no tyranny, has taken very much to heart Sir Arnold Robinson’s classic “Yes Minister” line that in government, “If no one knows what you’re doing, then no one knows what you’re doing wrong.”

Unfortunately, if you consistently mislead people they stop trusting you, and you yourself start having trouble telling fact from fiction. Ask Brezhnev’s ghost. (Or as Hungarian philosopher Anthony de Jasay put it: “The right mix of truth, falsehood and silence looks very difficult to achieve – even the Soviet Union, which chooses its preferred ‘mix’ more freely than most other states, seems to have mixed itself a poisonous brew.”) And if you consistently keep citizens uninformed, they either start believing wild rumours or else just get used to being uninformed and complacent about it. In democracies as in dictatorships.

“Yes Minister” is meant to be satire, not an operating handbook. Or rather, like Machiavelli’s much-misunderstood “The Prince,” it is meant to be an operating handbook for critics of government, not practitioners. Who I doubt in Canada are sufficiently self-aware to be doing it on purpose. But they have mixed themselves a poisonously soporific brew of empty verbiage on all controversial issues to the point that they’ve forgotten how to communicate clearly or why, thus cutting themselves off from useful feedback about preventing problems from spinning into crises.

There is another way. In Saturday’s National Post, my colleague Matt Gurney (also my editor and ex officio, an exceptionally wise and splendid chap) wrote a wistful piece about those much-mocked Cold War explanations of what happens in the event of a nuclear attack. For instance, that you die.

No, really. He cited a 1961 American recording available online called “If the Bomb Falls,” apparently private but adapted from government publications, that said: “We might label our nuclear weapons ‘instant death.’ There’s no doubt about it — if you live within a few miles of where one of these bombs strike, you’ll die. Instantly. You’ll also die if you live downwind from where the bomb falls, even a few hundred miles away. It may be a slow and lingering death, but … You’ll die unless you have shelter.”

Not what you want to hear, especially in a chilling monotone. But useful if true. Including practical advice about checking local building codes before burying a bus full of tinned food in your backyard, and an actual shopping list of nourishing non-perishable food. Which Gurney contrasts with the U.S. government’s overly soothing overflow of unhelpful burble on COVID-19.

Well, try the Canadian response. If you can find it. A medical entrepreneur in Tuesday’s National Post warned that our hospitals are already stretched past capacity and would be overwhelmed by a lot of people requiring urgent respiratory care. Which is an open secret anyway. But from our government? They announced a press conference.

To be fair, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu suggested last week that people stockpile food and medicine. But in the vaguest possible way, accompanied by noncommittal rhetoric about being prepared for anything, that cancelling events due to the Wuhan virus was up to some other jurisdiction, that it’s in a lot of countries and hard to contain but possibly contained, that governments are “very carefully monitoring” the situation, and that “It’s really about, first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies so if someone in your family becomes ill, if you yourself become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside.”

She also said keep your prescriptions filled, wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, get your flu shot so you don’t clutter up a hospital, and blah blah blah. Which we should all do anyway so in the event of any disaster we do not immediately become an urgent part of the problem. But she was nagging us, not providing information about what the government was doing about COVID-19 or thought was happening. It didn’t even come with a shopping list for surviving a week holed up in your home. She did gesticulate vaguely toward “the Public Safety website” but “these aren’t new things, they’re not special things.”

No indeed. When it comes to actual information, you don’t need to know what we know or whether we do. For instance, I don’t even know why there are so many cases in Iran. Is it because of the link between the Chinese communists and Iran’s theocratic dictatorial regime?

Global News actually found someone to blame the Iranian outbreak on U.S. sanctions, which seemed an information-free Blame America First response. But about the only policy our government seems to have is to avoid mentioning that a lot of Chinese people have a disease that originated in China lest an epidemic of bigotry should cause Canadians to start foaming at the mouth. Which, again accidentally, reminds us that our government has a very low opinion of our morals as well as our intelligence.

In Washington State and Oregon officials are closing and attempting to sanitize schools in the wake of several deaths. It might be an overreaction. But it’s a reaction we’re aware of so we can debate it.

Meanwhile how’s Canada doing? We don’t know enough to judge. Which is another way of saying we’re doing very badly.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.