Donald Trump’s response to coronavirus has Canada feeling the heat

WASHINGTON—On Sunday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump retweeted an image of himself playing a violin. Its caption read, “My next piece is called … nothing can stop what’s coming.”

He claimed not to know what it meant. Those who made “Nero” a trending term on social media, however, seemed to think the president was following in the footsteps of the emperor who fiddled as Rome burned.

As Trump continues to downplay the severity of the virus, the outbreak is rapidly spreading through the country, although how rapidly and how widely is hard to tell due to a shortage of tests.

“This is the most egregious level of incompetence in an administration that I think we’ve witnessed, at least in my memory,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told MSNBC.

It’s not just Americans who should be worried. Viruses — like fires — know no borders. While we didn’t elect Trump, we can hear his fiddling and feel the heat.

Canada, by most accounts, has been more responsive: deploying tests at a much faster rate, tracking cases carefully, deploying public health experts to get good information out. As the Star’s editorial board noted this week, “In Canada, the coronavirus crisis seems to be bringing out the best in governments at all levels.”

The question for Canadians is whether even the best response at home will prevent a mass outbreak and chaos if the U.S. continues to botch its own efforts. Canada’s population is small compared to that of the U.S., and congregated along a very open border that sees roughly 300,000 crossings per day.

It is obvious that any American recession is likely to have a severe impact on Canada’s economy. But it seems equally clear that if Americans get sick with a highly communicable, highly lethal infectious disease, it will be hard to slow its spread to Canada.

In the past week, three new cases have been detected in Ontario, and one in Alberta, of people who appear to have contracted the illness in the United States. Two Canadian members of Parliament are self-quarantining after exposure to an infected person at a conference in the U.S.

But what exactly can be done to protect Canadians from infections originating in the U.S. is a tricky question. Jonathan Quick, a professor of global health at Duke University and the author of “The End of Epidemics: The Looming Threat to Humanity and How to Stop It,” says any response needs to strike a balance of competing interests.

“During a major epidemic such as COVID-19, two key objectives are (1) saving lives by prevention and treatment of infection, and (2) keeping society running. So any measures should be science-based, risk-based, and as least intrusive as possible,” Quick wrote in an email.

He suggests the “first line of defence” to stop the virus entering Canada from the U.S. might be targeted screening of travellers coming from the cities where there have been large outbreaks, such as Seattle and New York City.

U.S. border agents have been screening those who have recently travelled to China, and had denied entry to at least 100 from Canada by late last week as a result, CBC News reported. But Canadian authorities have not yet implemented any increased screening of travellers from the U.S.

And while the Canadian government is monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in Washington, California, and Oregon, it provided no specific travel advice to Canadians on its website regarding the United States beyond following “usual precautions” — unlike countries such as Italy and China, which it tells travellers to avoid, or Japan and South Korea, where it advises a “high degree of caution.”

“The health and safety of Canadians is of the utmost importance and remains our top priority. The Canadian Border Service Agency continues to work closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada to ensure the appropriate border measures are in place,” said a statement on Tuesday from the office of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is co-ordinating Ottawa’s anti-coronavirus efforts.

“Our government is working with our international partners, including the United States, to take a comprehensive approach to COVID-19.”

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The coronavirus threat is a particularly vivid illustration of an ever-present fact of Canadian life in the shadow of giant southern neighbour. Whether the issue is air pollution, economics, arts and culture or national defence, Canada’s ability to control its own destiny is severely limited by its proximity to and integration with the United States.

Being at the mercy of a country when we have no say in who governs it can be frustrating. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, it can be scary. When the U.S. leader breaks out the violins, it can be downright infuriating.

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