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My wife and I have spent the month of August visiting family in Ontario. As Canadian citizens resident in the United Kingdom, we were required by law to quarantine for the first two weeks, which we did in a private trailer on a family farm. Not so bad, as quarantines go. Nearby relatives provided food, the fridge was stocked full of local beer when we arrived, and the weather was beautiful for the duration.
When we returned to England at the end of August, we had to do another fortnight in our tiny London flat—a slightly more depressing alternative. But our first quarantine gave me a lot of time to reflect on the current parallels between the two countries, which go beyond mutually inconvenient quarantine rules.
At the time we were in quarantine — according to Worldometers, the daily total of COVID-19-related deaths in Canada was two, and in the UK, six. Given that an average of 700 people die every day in Canada and 1,600 every day in the UK, it would appear that both countries have lost a sense of proportion when it comes to COVID-19. Penalties for violating quarantine (including sitting outdoors, even two metres away from anyone else) are stiff. In Canada the fines are up to $750,000 per person, or up to six months in prison. Again, the sense of proportion seems off, but then again, when the official opposition doesn’t do its job, the result is always going to be badly formulated law.
Opposition parties in both Canada and the UK began their search for a new leader almost simultaneously at the end of 2019. Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer announced his resignation on the 12th of December, the very same day that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a massive majority in the UK general election over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Corbyn announced his resignation the next day.
Sir Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour party less than four months later on the April 4. In Canada, however, despite the fragility of a minority Liberal government, the Conservative Party took more than eight months to elect Erin O’Toole as leader, leaving the official opposition in a state of transition during a time when unprecedented suppressions of civil liberties were imposed on the people of Canada.
Had they got their act together faster, the Conservatives might have offered some rigorous opposition to the government, with the threat of a viable alternative. The opportunity for and necessity of opposition was never greater than during lockdown, and yet the Conservative Party of Canada wasn’t prepared enough to keep parliament sitting in some form, properly scrutinize the government’s actions, or prevent legislation from being disproportionate and despotic.
Any opposition offered by Scheer came across as hollow since he was never going to be around for the next election. In Britain, the only opposition to lockdown was that it wasn’t severe enough or soon enough, which made little impact on the Conservative majority. Almost nobody in either country opposed the government’s response properly, but at least the UK had an opposition leader in place who plans to be around to contest the next election.
In both countries, the wearing of masks is the most visible feature of our current times. Canadians, despite having a death total that is marginally above the annual total for flu and pneumonia, seem generally to be more insistent on masks than the British, although both have similar rules in place for face coverings in public buildings. This despite the fact that there is no evidence to support the wearing of masks in these circumstances, and plenty to suggest otherwise.
But there are exemptions to these rules in both countries. Autism, anxiety, asthma and many other mental or respiratory illnesses prevent many people from wearing a mask. Yet frequently such people are being shamed or are experiencing hostility from others for leaving their faces uncovered — so much for ending the stigma surrounding mental illness. I recently asked a deaf man about his experience of public mask wearing and he said he couldn’t read anyone’s lips, and therefore couldn’t understand what anyone was saying to him any more.
My wife has an exemption — she is seven months pregnant and asthmatic. In the UK and in Canada she isn’t required to provide proof of this. She only has to tell a shop employee that she has an exemption and the employee is not permitted to question her further. Otherwise it constitutes discrimination under the Equality Act in the UK or a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. All shop owners and employees (not to mention restaurants, bars, churches and other public buildings) need to know that if they challenge someone who has an exemption that they could wind up with a lawsuit or standing before a human rights tribunal.
On the flight to Canada we informed the crew of my wife’s exemption and she was permitted not to wear a mask on the flight. But since our arrival Canadian law has changed. Transport Canada now insists on a note from a medical professional, something we weren’t required to get when before we left London. My wife has either spoken to or visited at least three doctors and has been refused a letter by all of them. Not because she’s not eligible, but because they aren’t comfortable issuing the letter, which seems strange.
For the vast majority of us, Covid-19 is no more dangerous than seasonal flu. Cases are only going up in places because testing is increasing. Hospitalizations and deaths are what matter, and they’re down. And remember, in Canada 80 per cent of deaths occurred in old age homes. That was a direct result of the federal government’s guidance document, COVID-19 pandemic guidance for the health care sector, which advised hospitals to “discharge as many patients as possible based on revised criteria for discharge.”
Elderly patients already in hospital for some other reason contracted the virus in the hospital, were cleared out of the hospital to make space, were then returned to their care homes where they spread the virus to others in the very places with the highest concentration of other elderly people. The government was more concerned about hospital capacity than for the lives of the most vulnerable. In the UK, the same pattern played out with the same advice given in a similar guidance document, COVID-19 Hospital Discharge Service Requirements.
Both governments have massively overreacted, and both are responsible for many if not most COVID-19-related deaths, because of the care home scandal. Both are insisting on masks for reasons to do with politics and public compliance rather than public health. And both are showing no signs of admitting that they made any mistakes. But unless there is a strong, effective and viable opposition holding them to account, why would they?