Rules on self-islolation – social distancing – It’s a truism that politicians speak out of both sides of their mouths. The tone-deaf politician who upends their own message is a staple of stand-up comedy. Nowhere is this proving to be more true than in the rhetoric-reality divide on COVID-19 except that there is nothing funny about it. For over a month, the public has listened to endless exhortations from government officials to practice social distancing and self-isolation.The problem is, they don’t seem to be doing it themselves. What happens then, when politicians don’t practice what they preach?
Pauline Orr, a clinical social worker and therapist in the West Island says she is in full agreement with current social distancing policies. “I think they are protecting the vulnerable. However, yes, there is a cost,” she says. She hopes that there will be lessons learned from this crisis. “Once the pandemic is over, I hope what we will have learned from this will promote changes.” She says it’s all about the way we think about and especially treat others, in our family and in society. “I hope it makes us stop and consider our impact on one another and our need for one another,” she says, stressing that we are interconnected. “But for now, the important thing is to reduce the number of people getting sick and dying. And this means social distancing.”
From the onset of news that Canada had confirmed cases of COVID-19 the public has been inundated with images of political leaders and public health officials seated at close range at press conferences instructing the public to stay at least 2 metres apart. This was the case until recently when Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam began to appear on television alone without Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu and other ministers by her side. Provincial premiers soon followed suit. Quebec Premier Francois Legault’s televised appearances are now sans Public Health Director Horacio Arruda while Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s daily briefings model social distancing with two ministers on either side standing well behind him. Lately, the focus has shifted to masks. To wear, or not to wear: that is the question. However, in all the hand-wringing over whether a mask actually protects against the potentially deadly disease, how many politicians or health officials are actually wearing them.
Another blind spot in the COVID-19 public health direction was evident last week. Parliament had been recalled for a rare Saturday session to pass the COVID-19 wage subsidy bill. This was the second emergency parliamentary sitting, this time to study and pass an expansion to the wage subsidy program. A small plane was dispatched to pick up outgoing Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and his family, Green Parliamentarian Elizabeth May, and Liberal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough to bring them back to Ottawa from western Canada. The problem was that the 9-seater Challenger jet didn’t have enough room for social distancing. Apparently, nobody caught the logistical oversight in time. Later Scheer was criticized by some people for not giving his fellow passengers a heads-up that he would be bringing his wife Jill and their five children back to Stornoway, the official residence of Canada’s leader of the Opposition where Scheer and his family reside when Parliament is sitting.
May said she was “extraordinarily grateful” to have been offered the flight. She said that she wore a mask and tried to keep as much distance as possible under the circumstances, but wasn’t fazed by the presence of Scheer’s family. She said that she totally understood where Scheer was coming from. ”I’m not going to try and walk in his shoes,” she said. ”It’s a family matter.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got into trouble when he left one of his official residences in Ottawa to visit with his family over the Easter weekend. Social media has been abuzz for days since Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire posted photos of herself, the PM, and their children at Harrington Lake in Gatineau, Québec. ”Even though families across the country are having to get a little creative and celebrate a bit differently this year, we’re all in this together. So whether you’re able to be with your loved ones or you’re staying connected from afar, we’re thinking of you and keeping you in our hearts…,” Grégoire wrote in her Facebook post on Easter Sunday.
The post stirred controversy because public health authorities have been warning people not to travel unless they absolutely have to. By April 1st, the Sûreté du Québec had set up roadblocks on bridges between Ottawa and Gatineau and were stopping people heading into Quebec and turning them away if their visit was for recreational purposes.On March 30th Trudeau announced that Grégoire, who had tested positive for coronavirus had been given a clean bill of health but that he would continue to self-isolate at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa while his wife and children were at Harrington Lake.
The prime minister has three official residences and two of these are in Ottawa. The first property at 24 Sussex Drive is a sprawling complex that includes five buildings. The main building has 35 rooms and the vacant 24 Sussex property which is in need of repair is costing taxpayers millions to maintain. Since 2015 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family have been staying at Rideau Cottage a Georgian Revival mansion with 22 rooms located on the grounds of Rideau Hall. The third summer residence and all-season retreat is at Harrington Lake in Gatineau Park. According to the National Capital Commission which manages the 5.4 hectare country property, there are four recreational buildings: the main house, the staff cottage, the upper guest cottage, and the lower guest cottage. The land, which formerly consisted of cultivated fields, has reverted to a forest. The main house overlooks Harrington Lake a.k.a. Lac Mousseau in French
The fact that Grégoire and the children left Ottawa – by some accounts with the nannies (and the inevitable security detail) – was news to most folks. In mid-March Trudeau said that he and his children were self-isolating at Rideau Cottage while Sophie was quarantining in another part of the house. At some point Grégoire crossed the Ontario/Quebec border although Trudeau didn’t specify a date. It isn’t clear when the children left. Calculating 14 days for quarantine from March 13th when news broke that Grégoire was sick this would have brought her departure date to sometime in late March.
In any case, the public wasn’t informed by health authorities of this fact or any possible ramifications. Instead, it was presented by the PM as a fait accompli. Regardless of when Sophie Grégoire or the Trudeau children left Ottawa it didn’t mesh with expectations around COVID-19, the prerogative of the prime minister aside. The relocation of Trudeau’s family to Harrington Lake wasn’t work-related or necessary. The PM has two stately residences in Ottawa and presumably he will continue to manage the national response to the COVID-19 outbreak from the nation’s capital.
Then there are the optics. In March, as images of young people partying at beaches and in parks during spring break began to flood the Internet, Trudeau took to the podium in front of Rideau Cottage to tell them in no uncertain terms to stay home, threatening use of the police for those who didn’t comply with social distancing regulations legislated by the provinces. Rural mayors have implored city-dwellers not to go to their summer residences in unaffected areas for fear of spreading the virus. Some city mayors like Montreal’s Mayor Valérie Plante have even considered restricting the movement of persons between boroughs while Quebec Premier François Legault has banned or restricted travel to several regions in Quebec
Politicians aren’t the only ones making light of COVID-19 precautions. The New York Post has reported that Chris Cuoma, best known as the presenter of Cuomo Prime Time, a weeknight news analysis show on CNN was caught out in East Hampton on Easter Sunday after testing positive for coronavirus. The CNN host was supposed to be self-isolating in the basement of his home in Southampton when a cyclist spotted him with his wife, another women and three children in front of a new property Cuomo had purchased that was still under development. The Long Island resident and Cuomo argued when the man challenged the journalist for being out of quarantine and violating social distancing and travel restrictions, calling attention to the fact that Cuomo’s brother Gov. Andrew Cuomo is New York’s “coronavirus czar”. Cuomo later ranted about the incident on his Sirius XM Radio show prompting the 65 year old man to file a complaint against Cuomo with the East Hampton police claiming that the CNN star had threatened him.
Obviously, Cuomo wanted to enjoy Easter Sunday with his family. Of course, the PM wanted to be with his family on the holiday weekend but this didn’t require his entire household decamping to another province. Most likely the move to Harrington Lake is about securing a summer get-away for the PM’s family and entourage in the event that beaches and terraces are closed this summer and travel becomes untenable or politically incorrect in the midst of a crisis brought on by a global pandemic. The ”we” are all in this together – the mantra for fighting the global pandemic – has got to include decision-makers. Politicians have to walk their talk. They can’t reasonably ask people to make sacrifices that they are not willing to make themselves. The message to stay at home won’t fly if politicians or media personalities slip away to their chalets and yacht clubs to enjoy the bounty of summer while everyone else has to hunker down in an urban wasteland where the economy and social life have all but ground to a halt. It just won’t stick, no matter how much money is doled out in emergency benefits.