At a news conference in front of his home on Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is self-isolating after his wife tested positive for covid-19, announced new measures and recommendations to deal with the spread of the novel coronavirus. The fact that the prime minister is working from home has not caused general concern — in fact, the country’s institutions seem to be responding effectively, aided perhaps by the relative lack of partisan shenanigans.
Trudeau recommended that Canadians forgo unnecessary travel and said a fiscal stimulus package was forthcoming. The finance minister, Bill Morneau, announced a CAD $10 billion credit fund for businesses and a possible delay of tax filing. And there’s more to come next week. The Bank of Canada announced a rate cut of half a percentage point.
The government limited inbound flights. Members of Parliament suspended the legislative session until at least mid-April and delayed the budget that was due this month. Trudeau is taking calls and holding meetings remotely. It’s an extraordinary moment, but Canada’s immediate response to managing the pandemic has been, on balance, sound and effective.
The world is living through one of its first major global crises in the social media era. Information travels wide and fast, including misinformation and disinformation. Messages are spread online, inducing rapid panic. States are more interdependent than they’ve ever been, and consumer expectations are onerous. Alongside all this, some democratic countries — for instance, the United States — are struggling against internal decay and external pressures from illiberal or autocratic rivals. Populist movements simmer, both the toxic and the salutary variety. Anyone who tells you they know what happens next, or where this is all going to end up, is pulling your leg and quite possibly their own.
In Canada, one of the central concerns surrounding the coronavirus and its fallout is the United States. The Canadian response has been measured, mostly well-communicated, and timely. The debate over when officials ought to endorse social distancing stands out as a point of friction, a key one, but otherwise most of the country looks to be rowing in the same direction.
But the northern constitutional monarchy shares the world’s longest undefended border with the world’s leading republic, a frontier through which the vast majority of Canada’s trade passes, along with people who have friends, partners, relatives and other attachments. The American bungling of the pandemic is worrying Canada, caught between economic and social imperatives and the need to manage the virus. That test has yet to be fully taken, and it’s not clear how it will go.
But in the interim, Canadians will see that the country’s institutions, while in need of significant reform and remaking in the name of economic justice, are equipped to competently manage a crisis. Trudeau working from home will affect little. Parliament being suspended will not unmake the state, nor will a delayed budget. The prime minister and his cabinet are equipped to introduce policy as needed and to negotiate with and support the provinces on the fly. Therein lies one of the benefits of a parliamentary democracy and a healthy-ish political culture: fleet-footedness that treads along a path supported by a general understanding among politicians across party lines that you can keep the government in check and hold it to account without compromising efforts to manage a crisis.
In the days and weeks and perhaps months to come, there will be uncertainly, sacrifice, pain and tragedy. Canada is proceeding in a way that offers a high likelihood of mitigating these, though opposition parties, journalists, commentators and citizens must remain critical of the government to ensure sufficient accountability and to offer different perspectives. Once the pandemic subsides, once there is a return to something resembling normalcy, we ought to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our institutions and systems (including our health-care system), the value of extraordinary measures (for instance, to support workers) and their possible fitness for long-term adoption, and the particulars of our relationship with other countries, including the United States. This is a critical juncture. We should take it as an opportunity for reform. But that comes later.
In the meantime, Canada will likely serve as an imperfect but preferable model to many states around the world. For that, Canadians ought to be both grateful and critical, the former because the national, provincial and local responses have been generally competent, and the latter because they could be improved by more extensive supports and a more rapid adoption of measures — such as social distancing and travel limits — that will harm the economy but save lives. In that sense, our social and political lives will be both extraordinarily unusual and typical at the same time.
David Moscrop is a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa.