When it comes to COVID-19 and borders, Liberal government shows a lack of competence

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Whether it was Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau fighting about illegal immigration, Ford and John Tory battling over municipal elections, or Trudeau and various premiers feuding about the carbon tax, there’s been no shortage of animosity between various levels of government in Canada over recent years.

This past week, all of that seems distant as federal, provincial and municipal leaders laud each other and work together as Canada grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

With a few minor exceptions, it seems Canadians have dispensed with partisanship for the time being, which is a healthy reminder that such a thing is possible in the midst of a national crisis.

Despite this harmony, there are some gaps in the federal government response that have allowed the virus to spread how it has, and will likely exacerbate the problem.

There’s no point putting in the latest numbers of those infected by the virus given how dated they’ll be by the time I send this column off to my editor, let alone whenever you read it.  But make no mistake: these are serious times in need of a serious response.

So I find myself grappling with how to balance the desire for swift action and dispensation of politics with the reality that I’m still seeing grave issues in the government’s handling of COVID-19.

I’m not talking about the relief measures that have been proposed by Trudeau.  Even with my generally libertarian ethos, I have no issue with the federal government’s $82 billion worth of programs and benefits, announced Wednesday, that aim to help individuals and employers negatively impacted by the virus’s economic challenges.

Helping those affected is important, but less so than minimizing the number of people who are.  Last week, Trudeau and his team were insistent that there was no need to restrict travel or close the border, with Health Minister Patty Hajdu assuring – repeatedly – that Canada’s relatively open border poses no great risk to COVID-19’s spread.

“Canadians think we can stop this at the border.  But what we see is a global pandemic, which means that border measures are highly ineffective and, in some cases, can create harm,” Hajdu said.

Hajdu didn’t say that border measures should be a last resort, or that it wasn’t yet the time.  She said without equivocation that they don’t work.

At some point, this changed in the government’s eyes.  Earlier this week, Trudeau said entry into Canada would be restricted to Canadian citizens, permanent residents of Canada, and American citizens.  A day later, Trudeau and US President Donald Trump announced recreational travel between Canada and the United States would be temporarily halted.

Trudeau has given no rationale for what caused him to change his mind, except for a vague suggestion that advice from public health officials changed.

While I’m grateful the government got around to making the right decision, the delay flies in the face of the World Health Organization’s advice, which the Canadian government has parroted, that quick solutions are more important than perfect solutions when it comes to outbreaks.

In other words, Trudeau would have been better off closing the border when the virus was rearing its head only in isolated, travel-related cases.

Border closures can still help, but are only a half measure now that the virus is spreading within communities.

Though even the supposed border closure has a Roxham Rd.-sized hole in it.  While American tourists and Japanese grandmothers are being turned away at the Canadian border, illegal immigrants are still being welcomed across and processed the same way they were when ‘corona’ conjured images of cheap beer rather than face masks.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said illegal border crossers will be medically screened and placed in a 14-day quarantine in additional to existing asylum claim procedures, though the head of the border agent’s union said on the same day Blair made this claim that it wasn’t happening.

I don’t expect perfection, but a basic level of competence would be nice before Canada reaches a point where are numbers start to look more like Italy’s than we’d like them to.  The benefit of a virus spreading like this one is that you can sometimes see where it’s going before it gets there based on what’s happening in other jurisdictions.

The border remains, as it has been from the start, one of the prime ways the virus will make its way into Canada.  Fixing this remains part of the solution.

Photo Credit: CTV News

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

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