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COMMENTARY: The Liberals are in no position to be boasting about their COVID-19 pandemic response

As we entered 2021, the federal government’s COVID-19 priorities seemed rather straightforward: get the vaccines in and keep the variants out.

Unfortunately, we ended up with the opposite.

The vaccine supply is starting to steadily increase, which is good news, but the variants are already firmly established here and, for now, are winning the race. Canada is not the only country struggling with this imbalance and it would probably be unfair to pin our current third wave entirely on the federal government (especially considering that some provinces — i.e., the Atlantic provinces — are faring relatively well at the moment).

But if the Liberals are going to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves on how they’ve handled the pandemic response, then it’s certainly fair to scrutinize their record. And frankly, it’s not a record worth boasting about.

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At last night’s kickoff to the Liberals’ weekend policy convention, Health Minister Patty Hajdu declared how “eternally grateful” she is that the country had a Liberal government at the start of the pandemic. If Canadians end up going to the polls, it’s easy to envision such a sentiment morphing into a campaign slogan.

Probably the best one could say of Canada’s pandemic experience and pandemic response is that “it could have been worse” or “at least we fared better than the U.S.,” which is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

One would be hard-pressed, however, to point to any aspects of Canada’s response that stood out above all other nations. Just try and imagine the conversation in any other country that would begin with, “If only we had followed Canada’s lead…” I sure can’t.

Again, this is about more than just the federal government, and the success of the Atlantic bubble has been one aspect of the pandemic response in this country that other jurisdictions probably would be envious of. But just as Ottawa would surely not want to share in the blame of other provinces’ pandemic struggles, they cannot claim credit for what the Atlantic provinces have pulled off.

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The two big challenges of 2021 have been emblematic of this mediocrity. The government’s hotel quarantine plan, which was billed as a necessary response to the rising threat of coronavirus variants, has been a controversial and confusing mess. The logic for such a policy is sound, though —  countries like New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan have been very successful with this approach.

It’s hard to see any evidence of Canada’s approach having worked, unless, again, one wishes to be charitable and presume that things could have somehow been worse without it. Amid reports of thousands of exemptions under the program and troubling numbers of international flights arriving with infected passengers, that benefit of the doubt is difficult to justify.

Our smug assessment of how our neighbours to the south have dealt with COVID-19 has definitely been put to the test this year as the Americans have surged well ahead of us with their vaccine rollout. While perhaps Canadians had been the ones previously wary about a reopening of the border, those roles may have now reversed.

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Ultimately, the desire to re-open that border, combined with the looming glut of vaccines in the U.S., may be a saving grace for Canada. Again, though, hardly something for the government to take credit for.

As the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s COVID Misery Index notes, Canada has fared poorly in all major areas including minimizing the spread of the virus and minimizing the economic impact of the pandemic. We’ve backed ourselves into a corner where we need vaccines to bail us out, and we’ve undermined that through our slow rollout and the surge in variant cases.

Canada should have been much better prepared for a pandemic like this, and ultimately we deserve some sort of inquiry and investigation into how and why things unfolded as they did. Ideally, this wouldn’t be a partisan affair, but that presumes that partisans aren’t going to try and sell us unfounded spin.

That horse is out of the barn, it would seem.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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