Opinion: Rock-star doctor isn’t beyond reproach

Sooner or later, someone was going to say it: Who made Dr. Theresa Tam the boss of all Canadians?

The fact that it was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is not surprising, historically or politically.

But Kenney’s words on Monday were a crack in a wall of remarkable deference to the authority of Canada’s chief medical officer over a month of national lockdown.

As we now head into month two, the question is whether Canadians more generally are starting to bristle at the doctor’s orders.

The federal government issued an emphatic “no” on Tuesday.

“Canadians have demonstrated that they have a tremendous level of trust and confidence in our public health officials and in our medical system,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.

“And we are going to continue work with top medical officials like Dr. Theresa Tam to make sure that we’re doing everything we need to do.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tam and other provincial public health officers have been conferred with the authority of “rock stars” in this crisis.

But Kenney’s remarks Monday broke a united front of assent to Tam’s advice — not just as it applies to the future, but to the past, as well.

The premier said Alberta was going to seek out tests and medication to fight the pandemic without waiting for approval from federal health bureaucrats.

Then, in a bit of a drive-by swipe at Tam personally, he also threw doubt on the advice the doctor had already given in the early days of the virus outbreak.

“This is the same Dr. Tam who is telling us that we shouldn’t close our borders to countries with high levels of infection, and who in January, was repeating talking points out of the (People’s Republic of China) about the no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” Kenney said on CBC’s Power and Politics program.

There’s an old joke about how you get 50 Canadians out of a pool. You say: “Canadians, get out of the pool.”

This pandemic, by and large, has made that joke feel a little too close to home, as a whole nation has put life as we know it on hold to comply with medical orders to contain the COVID-19 virus.

Deferential as we are, we probably wouldn’t have gone to these extraordinary lengths on the basis of political advice alone.

The federal government spent $30 million on a wave of ads with Tam as the sole spokesperson. (And no, that’s not the voice of Trudeau at the end of the ad, though it does sound an awful lot like him. I asked and the answer was no.)

Day after day, premiers and political leaders line up at podiums to give public briefings, backed by the latest information from the doctors in charge.

Whenever a question is asked about what’s going to happen next, the unfailing answer is that governments will be heeding the instructions of the top doctors.

This in itself is evidence that we’re living in unusual times. We don’t always listen to doctors and medical experts, on matters of smoking, obesity, exercise, or even climate science, for instance.

Statistics aren’t always as persuasive as they are these days, when we’re all scouring charts for flattened curves.

Kenney, as mentioned earlier, has a long history of skepticism about stats and evidence as they’re used in the federal government. One of his own former bureaucrats in the citizenship and multiculturalism department, Andrew Griffith, has written some compelling work about how Kenney forced the public service to rebalance evidence and political considerations while he was minister.

The idea was that politicians are in government to weigh all kinds of public interests against the weight of impersonal numbers and charts, including the intelligence the political types gain from mixing with people outside the corridors of the civil service.

So, as I said, it’s not that surprising to see Kenney balking again at blind subservience to public servants’ advice, even from Canada’s top doctor.

Is that such a bad thing? Reasonable people might well agree, in fact, that, while the medical health of Canadians has to be a priority in this pandemic, the economic health of citizens is owed some due deference, too, especially as the financial devastation deepens.

Tam, for her part, stayed right out of the dispute Tuesday when asked about Kenney’s remarks, saying only that it’s her job to take many things into consideration, including advice and insight from other countries.

It would be grossly unfair and probably unproductive to make Tam a target, even if Canadians are increasingly bristling at life under doctor’s orders.

But deference to authority in general is a fragile commodity, especially in a country undergoing an endurance test of indefinite length. Canadians aren’t rebelling, at least not yet, but their deference has time limits.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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