, 03.10.2020 07:50 AM

My latest: washing your hands is smart politics

A press conference.

In the Spring of 2003, the coronavirus variant called SARS was raging, killing many Canadians, making them sick. So Ontario’s health minister, Tony Clement, held a press conference.

Standing in front of the assembled media, this is all he did: he washed his hands.

Washing your hands thoroughly, Clement said, was one of the best ways to keep the virus from circulating.

That’s it. A press conference about washing your hands.

Some of us Ontario Liberals, preparing for an election that was just a few months away, snickered. A press conference to show people how to wash their hands? Seriously?

The next day, we weren’t laughing so much. Our campaign manager – a pollster – told us that the Progressive Conservative government’s numbers, which had been lagging for months, surged after Clement’s press conference.

The Tories became more popular, he said. A lot more popular. Because of a press conference about washing one’s hands.

Voters really liked what Tony Clement did in his press conference, the pollster said. They didn’t think a cabinet minister washing his hands was in any way funny.

“They think it’s what government should be doing in a situation like this,” he said.

Seventeen years later, the question is relevant once again. What is the proper role of government as coronavirus’ variant, CORVID-19, sickens and kills thousands around the globe? What should government, and our leaders, do?

Donald Trump, the titular president of the United States, says the virus will be gone when it gets warmer. His designated fake news spokesperson, Kelly-Anne Conway, says that the sickness has been contained. His vice-president says that a vaccine is imminent.

It’s all lies, however. Coronavirus will not dissipate simply because Winter is turning to Spring. Nor is a vaccine at hand – most experts agree it is more than a year away. And nor has the virus been confined. It is, instead, spreading everywhere: across the United States, people are dying, and states are declaring themselves to be states of emergency.

In Canada, it is slightly different. To his credit, Justin Trudeau has not personally made any dubious or reckless claims. Instead, he has left those to his ministers. His Minister of Health, for example, initially said the coronavirus was not something to worry about. That’s what she said.

“The risk to Canadians is low,” Patty Hajdu said at the end of January. “We’re working with provinces and territories to ensure we’re prepared.”

The risk, however, is clearly not “low.” It is significant, experts say. Coronavirus is like the flu, say the experts, except on steroids. It is far more deadly than the flu, too, and the flu kills about 4,000 Canadians every year. Do the math.

In any event, that’s what Patty Hajdu said. A few days later, she said something entirely different.

Go stockpile food and medicine, Hajdu said. Go hoard it, in effect.

“Low risk,” one day. “Hoard food and medicine,” a few day later.

So, people started to do just that. At Costcos and Walmarts, from sea to sea to sea, some frightened Canadians dutifully emptied shelves of toilet paper and disinfectant wipes and food. They heard what Patty Hajdu said, and they took her advice.

Appalling and foolhardy: the bookends to Patty Hajdu’s communications strategy – which is, distilled down to its base elements, “don’t worry at all but worry a lot” – are simply that. The Canadian government’s approach isn’t as bad, perhaps, as America’s. But it’s close.

Here’s the thing: none of us are experts, except the experts. With people dying, with people getting really sick, it is critical that governments and politicians heed the experts. It is important that they carefully weigh what they say and do. It is imperative that they don’t needlessly alarm people, or recklessly dismiss the risks.

Want to help out, Messrs. Trump and Trudeau? Hold a press conference about how to wash our hands properly.

That, at least, you can do, right?


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    Lynn says:

    As a librarian, I spent my life touching dirty items. Books end up in people’s bathrooms, on floors, under piles of who knows what in people’s homes. Kids hand you a book with the same fingers that they just took of out of their nose. I am a lifelong hand washer out of self preservation.

    A bit that I learned through the years: When hand washing a quick swish is NOT enough. The rule I learned about 30+ years ago is to sing the first two verses of “twinkle twinkle little star” as a timing device. Wash thoroughly with soap, the back of hands, between fingers and soap must be used.

    In this instance, I heard that hand washing immediately when getting home is important. Right to the sink and do not touch things along the way.

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    whyshouldIsellyourwheat says:

    On the topic of Ontario politics, I really know nothing about the new Liberal leader, only that he gives me the creeps.


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    PK says:

    We need regular public service announcements for hand washing, coughing etiquette, cleaning surfaces, to prevent hand shaking – Everyday radio and television social media etc – to create habits in people – schools should have hand washing lessons daily – this is to create everyday habits that will curb the spread of this virus –

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      Chris Sigvaldason says:

      A few years ago, among Canadian health-care workers, the Influenza vaccine rate AND hand-washing rate were both about 70-75%. This was during one of those times when “super-bug” stories were filling the media. I wonder if they have improved at all. You’d think they would both be 99%-plus.

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    joe says:

    I used to travel a lot to the US on business. Every trip my friends would insist on shaking hands, even if we’d seen each other the week before.

    I quickly noticed I was coming down with a lot of colds and flu. So I after the obligatory round of handshakes, I’d excuse myself and go to the washroom to vigorously wash my hands. Same procedure in airplanes, and when leaving airports. I noticed a dramatic decrease in colds and flu.

    Good on Mr Clement for actually washing his hands on air. You remember more of what you see than what you hear.

    As far as listening to Mr Trudeau, even my liberal friends don’t. They tell me they’re still going to vote Liberal, but they no longer pay any attention to him.

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    the real Sean says:

    Government emergency plan step #1… Find all the emergency plans and feed them directly into the paper shredder.

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    Yet another Calgarian says:

    I have to admit I’m wondering whats going to happen what the virus makes the jump into the homeless population on the US West coast.

    California in particular is not precisely what I would call agile in its responses and given the co-morbidity tie ins to substance abuse it could be seriously ugly.

    Expecting that to become a national political issue in the US sometime over the next couple of months.

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    Ronald O'Dowd says:

    Of course, the elephant in the room is all those people who assidously wash their hands in public restrooms and then do an epic fail by not closing the taps or opening the door with paper towel in hand.

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    Patrick says:

    I’m amazed there are no public service announcements on the TTC about this. People cough and sneeze into their hands then grab a handrail. Nuts!

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    CanadianKate says:

    Because there are only hand dryers in the washroom. And at places like McDonalds, I can’t grab a napkin on my way to the bathroom because, to save the environment, they are now rationed behind the counter, therefore touched by others who hand them to me.

    I’ve started carrying paper napkins in my purse.

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