History is once again convulsing Europe. As COVID cases surge, the continent is gripped by crisis after crisis, triggering an ugly collision of public health issues and social conflict. Meanwhile, the leadership of Belarus, along with Vladimir Putin, have manufactured a destabilizing humanitarian crisis at the continent’s eastern border.
Canadians can count ourselves fortunate to see a slight ebb in our “fourth wave” rather than the exponential rise seen elsewhere, not to mention the absence of such threats from autocrats.
Nevertheless, experts keep reminding us that the virus isn’t going anywhere — there will be spikes throughout the winter and the holiday season. And as in Europe, these spikes will bring political and social crises with them.
Sudden lockdowns and vaccine mandates have created major issues in Europe. Mass protests are occurring across the continent. Hooligans provoked violent clashes with police in Rotterdam, and the far-right dominated coverage at other large gatherings.
The Austrian chancellor blamed vaccine skepticism as he moved to implement a total vaccine mandate, the first western country to do so. The German health minister offered a warning that eventually “everyone will be vaccinated, recovered or dead.”
The concept of herd immunity has gone full circle to become political dynamite, as leaders in current hot spots grapple with the issue in different ways. France’s government, seeing roughly 30,000 cases a day, has acted similarly to ours — requiring proof of vaccination at many spaces, while shying away from drawing a tougher line.
In Britain, restrictions are virtually non-existent as cases soar over 40,000 a day. While a top health adviser to the government has framed this as a step in reaching herd immunity, one might also pose that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in no position to implement controversial measures as questions swirl around his leadership.
At home, we need not see this all as a harbinger of doom, but instead must remember managing COVID is largely a game of expectations. And those expectations must be firmly grounded in reality. Pollyannaish thinking will only result in a greater political price later on.
Lockdowns, in the minds of many Canadians, would represent a political failure. Our vaccine uptake has been strong, but questions remain over how politicians can or will act if we see significant surges in cases.
Vaccination mandates are already a source of aggravation for Conservatives, raising the topic again and again — and in so doing, creating space for the People’s Party of Canada and other fringe advocates. Keeping a grip on this issue will be no easy task for the Tories.
Incumbents like Justin Trudeau and Doug Ford are once again in the precarious position of managing another holiday season — and with it, another consequential wave of the virus.
To shut down the economy again would be risky for any leader, undoubtedly compounding the anxiety brought on by market indicators, inflation, supply chains and labour shortages.
In September, Doug Ford called vaccine passes our “best chance” at avoiding another lockdown, and it seems unlikely the premier — who is facing an election in June — would risk irking Ontarians again with mass restrictions.
As Ontario sees around 600 new cases a day, Ford must get out in front of this issue and demonstrate that he is working proactively to mitigate both public health risks and public dismay.
Just this week, the premier took steps in this direction, with his government announcing its plan to rollout the vaccine to children ages 5-11, and maintaining control over the proof of vaccination system by extending certain emergency orders until March.
Sustaining this arm’s-length-but-authoritative approach, while continually putting his government and himself front and centre of vaccination efforts, is the right approach for Ford and his peers.
Chaos in Europe has shown that drastic actions without adequate forewarning will activate deep divisions and further jeopardize public health, at a time when there are already more than enough fires to put out.