Skip to content

What have we learned from pandemics and protests?

What have we learned, through COVID-19 and recent protests? asks political watcher.
The message of sincere protestors was hijacked by those with different motives, says political columnist. Photo: CTV News Calgary

The pandemic was a shock in its first year. The second year was a grind. Now it is becoming a lifestyle. Along the way, things have been learned.

One lesson was Canada depends on about 60,000 international migrants to enter the country to perform agricultural labour every year. Before COVID-19, that flow of workers was seen only by their employers.

Another was even a serious health emergency can produce empty political nattering in the House of Commons and from provincial premiers.

Remember when the federal government was being criticized for not delivering more vaccine faster? Several months later, it turned out Canada was doing a good job of securing vaccine supply. The real problem was convincing hundreds of thousands of vaccine resisters to take the shots. The noisier premiers, especially in Saskatchewan and Alberta, did a mediocre job of that, and of supporting masking.

Where were the weekly statistics to back up the case for preventive measures? Why did Alberta Premier Jason Kenney weaken his occasional calls for vaccination by regularly sending accommodating messages to vaccine and mask resisters for his political benefit?

And where was honesty in a health emergency? Kenney tried to deflect responsibility for the failed “best summer ever” onto chief medical officer Deena Hinshaw. He said the government merely followed recommendations when it drastically loosened restrictions last year. In fact, someone in Hinshaw’s position would always offer options rather than make a single recommendation; and cabinet ministers and premiers have long ago become adept at making sure some of the recommendations they receive include the ones they want to see.

There was the near miracle of the vaccine supply itself. Canada benefited from the work of highly skilled international scientists.

And of course, there’s the lesson that a shock like the pandemic can easily push underlying social and political tensions to the surface.

The truck blockades, superficially held to protest vaccine mandates, resembled the opposition to conscription in the First and Second World Wars. Both the conscription crises reflected longstanding political tensions.

This time around, there have been new wrinkles. One is the large streak of irrationality. The only real argument against getting vaccinated is “I don’t want to.” Some have signed up for that. There are also regular reports of people with life-threatening cases of COVID-19 refusing to believe it is real.

The blockades were hardly just about vaccine mandates, though. Participants had all sorts of backgrounds and motives. The most common thread seemed to be antagonism against the current federal government, or against government in general. There was also a strong willingness to embrace disinformation peddled by dodgy websites and other sources; that had been building for years.

An epidemic of anger breeding in social media spread side by side with the physical illness. Many of the protesters seemed to be acting out psychological distress and political frustrations. The blockades were in part a proxy for real issues that were not going to be dealt with because they were not articulated (or in some cases, like the misguided and costly obstruction of pipeline projects, because there was too much momentum to overcome).

In the end, what stood out was the way the less radical protesters were manipulated. The blockaders at the Coutts border crossing found they had been infiltrated by people who brought guns, ammunition, and a stated willingness to shoot at police.

Those in downtown Ottawa carried many Canadian flags. But they ended up being used as political pawns — by career politician Pierre Poilievre, by organizers who had trouble distinguishing between Canadian and U.S. laws, by U.S. politicians, by U.S websites peddling conspiracy theories, and by Trumpist propaganda and Fox News blowhards who have become multimillionaire celebrities by offering an endless stream of lies and manufactured outrage.

The pandemic has produced many lessons. How many will be taken to heart and inform future decisions?

Mark Lisac watches politics for Alberta Prime Times. He writes novels too, including the recently published Red Hill Creek.