The decision made by several federal and provincial politicians to leave the country despite guidance from officials to avoid all non-essential travel amid the novel coronavirus pandemic is selfish and hypocritical, health experts say.
The move is “tone-deaf politically,” Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said.
“I mean, to not be able to read the country, to not be able to read the mood and think somehow this was OK,” he said. “The stupidity is surprising.”
Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., told Global News that this is “absolutely the wrong messaging” coming from these public figures.
“What it does is it makes people not want to listen to politicians,” he said. “Why would you listen to somebody who’s a hypocrite?”
Evans said this raises the question of fairness.
“And that’s not the message we want,” he said. “I go back to the spring, (when) it was all about, ‘We’re all in this together,’ and it just doesn’t look like we’re all in this together when politicians travel.”
Their remarks come after more than 20 politicians, including (now former) Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips, MP Kamal Khera, and Sen. Don Plett, disclosed they had travelled outside of the country in the last several weeks.
But their decision to ignore the regulations is just a “microcosm of what’s going on” in Canada more broadly, Furness said.
“The airplanes that are going back and forth carrying COVID around are not just full of politicians, they are full of lots of people who think it’s really important to take a vacation,” he said. “And I think there’s a bigger social trend. They really are revealing that.”
Furness said this behaviour has provoked “outrage” from those who are heeding the advice of health experts and are respecting the measures in place to stem the spread of the virus.
This backlash, he said, is “actually very useful.”
“Now we actually really have public sentiment that says this is lousy behaviour… This is truly selfish, lousy behaviour,” he said.
But Furness said we need to shame the actions, “not the individual,” adding that it is important to establish what is good and bad behaviour.
“I want it to look like it’s so socially unacceptable that you won’t do it,” he said. “That kind of attitude is actually starting to form because of these politicians’ gaffes, so that’s the upside.”
Closing down travel
Late last month, the federal government announced new rules for air travellers, saying anyone travelling to Canada will need to obtain a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before their flight.
The new measures are scheduled to come into effect on Jan. 7.
Under existing rules, anyone entering the country must quarantine for 14 days.
However, Furness said it’s not enough to simply ask Canadians to only travel when it is essential.
“If we want people not to travel, we need to close travel down,” he said.
Early data suggests the U.K. variant is more transmissible than the original variant of COVID-19, while the South Africa variant has raised concerns that mutations could affect vaccine efficacy.
“The U.K. one is definitely in the country, and it’s showing up again and again, and it’s going to spread and it’s going to close schools,” Furness said. “That’s what’s going to happen. This isn’t OK, this is not OK.”
The latest figures released last week by the Canadian Border Services Agency said between Dec. 21 and 27, 2020, a total of 132,094 people crossed the country’s land border, while 65,318 people arrived by air.
Of those travelling by air, 18,981 arrived on flights from the U.S., while 46,337 came from “other international flights.”
By the numbers
To date, Canada has seen a total of 614,072 novel coronavirus infections.
Since the pandemic began, 16,125 people have died in the country after testing positive for COVID-19.
Globally, more than 85.8 million cases of the virus have been reported, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.
By 11 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the virus had claimed 1.8 million lives around the world.
— With files from Global News’ Rachael D’Amore and The Canadian Press
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.