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Op-ed: Covid-19 is a public health issue, not a national security issue (duh?)

Updated: Mar 12, 2021


Image from the National Post. I wrote this a while ago in response to this op-ed by Andrew Potter. Slightly less relevant now, it's still a horrendously bad take worth responding to.

 

In a (no longer) recent op-ed for the National Post, Andrew Potter attempts to draw a connection between Canada’s privileged geopolitical position and sluggish Covid-19 response. Contrasting Canada with Israel in particular, he makes the argument that countries that have invested more resources and thought into security have taken more decisive action and had more success in fighting the pandemic.

Potter fails to demonstrate any clear, evidence-based correlation between precarious geopolitical positioning and effective Covid-19 responses, relying on simplistic impressions of nations’ success and ignoring information that goes against his theory. Potter comes very close to identifying the actual source of Canada’s poor response to Covid-19 -- an unwillingness to invest in robust social protections before disaster strikes -- but instead laments Canada’s tendency to “spend money.”

In Potter’s formulation, “spending money” for national security or defense is sorely lacking and necessary to survive pandemics, while doing the same for social programs is wasteful and ineffective. Covid-19 is not fought with guns, and Potter’s argument is not that Canada needs a stronger military, but rather a tougher attitude towards national security threats and a government that has more practice taking decisive action.

Take Israel, for example. Potter holds up Israel as an example of a nation in a precarious geopolitical position that was able to act decisively, particularly when it comes to vaccine rollout. Of course, he ignores the country’s arduous battle with Covid-19 before vaccines became available, entering and exiting lockdowns multiple times and dealing with enormous infection rates (15th globally in infections per one million people). It turns out that, when over eight million people live on a strip of land smaller than New Jersey, it’s fairly easy for both viruses and vaccines to get around.

Potter’s description of other Covid-19 winners is equally suspect. He lists Australia and New Zealand as countries with “highly insecure strategic geography,” and dismisses the idea that being islands could be responsible for their success by reminding readers that the U.K. is an island as well. The U.K. has a land border with Ireland, and is in close proximity to the E.U., while Israel, Australia, and New Zealand don’t get a ton of visits from neighbors.

And of course, he misses the easiest comparison of all: A country that is geographically and culturally similar to Canada, but also has the largest military in the world. Surely, such a country would be immensely successful in fighting Covid-19 and distributing vaccines. The solidarity and tough attitude created by the United States’ military has not prevented it from becoming the world leader in Covid-19 deaths.

Has Israel’s well-funded military, solidaristic culture, and active government helped with vaccine distribution? Surely. But governments can be decisive in protecting their citizens in ways other than investing in national security. The main flaw in Potter’s argument is the implication that Covid-19 is a national security issue, as opposed to a public health one.

He mentions the deployment of the military to long-term care homes as an example of effective government intervention in Canada. The military, he says, understands logistics. But the solution to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in long-term care homes is not earlier and more frequent military intervention. It is now clear that the worst conditions were to be found in private long-term care homes in Ontario. Had the provincial government taken LTC under its wing, and not defunded government LTC facilities, it's unlikely that the crisis would have reached the enormous proportions it did.

Infection rates from public schools would not be so high had the provincial government taken teachers’ union recommendations from all the way back in 2019 and decreased class sizes. What once looked to Ontario Conservatives like union whining is now sensible public health guidance (although classrooms have still not been de-densified). In Ontario, paid sick leave is unavailable, meaning people still need to choose between their health and livelihoods during a concurrent recession and public health crisis.

It is a history of penny-pinching Conservative and Liberal governments that have tightened budgets and prevented decisive action. Governments are not weak because they are not afraid of invaders, they are weak because they have limited resources, and are unwilling to use what resources they have. Instead of acknowledging this, Potter laments government spending, unless it is defense spending. Rather than criticizing the government’s lack of public health preparedness, he views Covid-19 entirely as a national security threat. The only way he can make such an argument are facile and incomplete comparisons to other countries.

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