There has been a lot of criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s management, or lack thereof, of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. I do not believe he did a good job, but I doubt that what he did is a whole lot worse than the job done by too many of his fellow leaders.
The gold standard for crisis response was in Asia, specifically in Taiwan and Singapore …
… where two exceptional leaders, Tsai Ing-wen, left, a former law professor, and Lee Hsien Loong, right, a math whiz and a former brigadier general in the army, lead the respective governments. Both took the best available scientific advice ~ which meant acting much, much faster and much more forcefully that the WHO recommended. Honourable mentions also go to Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Hong Kong has dreadful leadership, but the Hong Kong people responded, splendidly, to good, widely publicized medical advice. Additionally, one must take into account that all five countries have strong socio-cultural traditions that create a sort of built-in respect for both professional knowledge and authority. Their social norms make it easy for governments and public agencies to secure the active cooperation of most people with things like wearing face masks and observing the rules of isolation.
It seems to me that the WHO was excessively cautious and I share the view, with many observers, that Chinese political influence had, and still has something to do with that. The Chinese, like all great powers, are sensitive to criticism from international organizations and, after the SARS crisis (2003) China took a more active role in the WHO which had been quite open in its criticism of China. I don’t know how much Chinese influence played in electing Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia to be the WHO‘s director-general, nor do I know how much Chinese influence played in the abysmal public performance of Canadian Dr Bruce Aylward whose video interview with a Hong Kong TV reporter went viral after he, all too obviously, tried to avoid even saying Taiwan, much less commenting on its excellent performance. On balance, I think the WHO failed the world and it needs a thorough, top-to-bottom, bureaucratic house-cleaning.
It also seems to me that Canada, like America, Britain and Denmark, and France, Germany and Italy, put too much faith in the WHO and did not listen to the voices of the experts who, for example, urged travel bans early on. Prime Minister Trudeau, like many other leaders, seemed more interested in preventing racism than in stopping the spread of a deadly virus. But he wasn’t alone. In the early days of the virus that seemed to be a fairly normal (and understandable) political reaction, but, in Canada, it spread to the bureaucrats, too, and it appears, to me, now, that Dr Theresa Tam was and still is toeing the government’s political line rather than guiding it towards scientific best practices. I’m not blaming Dr Tam for doing as she was told by the prime minister and his team, but I am suggesting that the role of senior officials is to speak truth to power.
Robyn Urback, writing, just hours ago, in the Globe and Mail, reviews Canada’s haphazard approach to the crisis and makes some recommendations for the near term. I’m neither a physician nor a scientist so I cannot judge how useful her suggestions are but her general approach ~ do more, now ~ seems sound, especially when compared to the Trudeau approach of wait and see. “After all,” she writes, “over just a few weeks, we’ve watched the unthinkable become essential. We need to anticipate what will become essential soon and enact those measures now.” How we all might wish Prime Minister Trudeau and Dr Tam had done that, anticipated the needs measures and enacted them quickly, weeks ago.
I’m certainly not going to praise Justin Trudeau, he doesn’t deserve that, but I’m not condemning the prime minister, either. He did not do well, not well at all, but he did little or no worse than many, many other ‘leaders.’ He is, as has so often been the case, “just not ready” for the task at hand. The pity, for Canada, is that we have him for our ‘leader’ and not someone more like President Tsai or Prime Minister Lee.