Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has never exactly been popular among the mainstream journalists, commentators and public intellectuals I follow on social media. But nor has she come in for a huge amount of criticism — certainly nothing like her retiring-on-Friday colleague at Queen’s Park, Dr. David Williams, who quite rightly became a lightning rod over Ontario’s often byzantine, inexplicable and internally contradictory rules. Williams often seemed downright annoyed that people found the rules as byzantine, inexplicable and internally contradictory as they were.
Furthermore, Tam has been a useful voice of caution for journalists: If Ontario or Alberta or Quebec were planning to loosen restrictions, she could always be counted on to say “don’t.” This fulfilled traditional journalism’s desire for “tension” in its “storytelling,” and also validated most journalists’ personal preference for a hard-lockdown approach.
But Tam’s luck may have run out this week at a press conference on Tuesday. With remarkable and frankly inexplicable speed, the Canadian media narrative recently swerved from “will the inevitable fourth wave be the worst yet?” to “what’s taking so long to reopen?” We have surpassed the benchmarks Tam herself established in April for loosening restrictions: 75 per cent with a single dose, 20 per cent with two. Why, reporters demanded to know, has Tam not issued guidance on what vaccinated Canadians can and cannot do?
Tam did not seem prepared for that. The third time she was asked, she began as follows: “I’m sure you’ve heard that vaccinated people can get infected, so even the most effective vaccines are not absolutely perfect.”
This appeal to the lack of absolute vaccine perfection not well received. “The dour hopelessness of the messaging even as Canada administers vaccines at an astonishing pace is so demoralizing and seems horribly counterproductive,” Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief Shannon Proudfoot wrote — accurately — on Twitter. “If Canada’s public health officials saw me giving food to a starving beggar they would run up to us, swat the food from my hands onto the street and scream at me about the risk of choking,” quipped National Post columnist Matt Gurney.
For the record, I was asking this basic question way before it was cool: Why are we promoting miraculous get-your-life back shots as if they were communion wafers at a murdered child’s funeral? (There have been some notable attempts at optimism at the provincial level.) I don’t know the whole answer. Part of it is that Canadian federal governments in general, and too many of their ministers and public servants individually, don’t seem to trust Canadians any further than they could throw them.
Tam’s performance on Tuesday was especially frustrating considering how easily she could have avoided causing controversy. “The first…recommendation is still you must follow your local public health advice,” she said at one point. Dr. Howard Njoo, her deputy, expanded: “It’s a big country and there’s obviously different situations throughout the country. So, listen to local public health authorities.”
That’s precisely right, and as far as either of them ever had to go: No matter how many times Ottawa journalists ask about it, no one on Parliament Hill is in charge of whether you can go to a movie or a baseball game, eat at a restaurant (indoors or out), ride in a cable car, rent one of those swan boats or go for a picnic. If Tam and Njoo had just parked their bus at “ask the provinces,” no doubt some Ottawa journalists would have been baffled. Here in Ontario, many seem to think Canada is a federation by dint of some horrible accident of history.
But they could never keep their mouths shut. Tam went out of her way to establish that 75/20 per cent threshold, so when we reached it, she was obviously going to face questions about what comes next.
As for the media, there’s more than enough nonsense to ask Tam about in the new border restrictions: If variants of concern are still such a worry, why loosen up on mandatory hotel quarantine for those arriving from overseas? If fully vaccinated Canadians are allowed in without quarantine, why not other fully vaccinated travellers? If we must watch Tam flail around helplessly for good answers, at least the questions could be within her actual jurisdiction.