Thumbing their noses at science

It is clear that the extreme and sinister manipulation of coronavirus for political advantage is a very adaptable trend.

CANADIAN CHIEF Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam masks up at a news conference in Ottawa on November 6. (photo credit: PATRICK DOYLE)
CANADIAN CHIEF Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam masks up at a news conference in Ottawa on November 6.
(photo credit: PATRICK DOYLE)
In addition to presenting as a virus with deadly potential, COVID-19 has also exposed rank stupidity and governmental incompetence globally.
In Canada, where I spent three months recently visiting family, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared in February that there was a “remote” possibility the virus would spread to Canada. This bold assertion, he assured the nation, was based on “science,” a word he likes to throw around somewhat indiscriminately. So, Canadians were told, any COVID-related policy would be “science-based.” In the same breath, he dismissed the possibility of imposing any measure of border controls on travelers arriving in Canada from “hot spots,” declaring such measures to be “racist” and not “science based.” Still with me?
Trudeau’s silly-woke approach to epidemiology didn’t last long. However, his position was enthusiastically supported by Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, whose mandate is to understand medical science issues and then opine on various policies. Instead, she analyzed medical issues through the lens of extreme political correctness, a parody of her critical mandate and responsibility to the public.
Canada’s fallback on most issues, particularly during the Trump years, has been to smugly observe how much better off “we” are than “them.” It’s a core element of Canadian identity, asserting our superiority over Americans, just cuz: cuz we have better manners, cuz we are quieter and nicer and cuz we just do the right things, cuz that’s what Canadians do. And maple syrup. And beer. And hockey.
While US President Donald Trump shrugged off the “Wuhan virus” as a “hoax” meant to undermine the American economy through fear, Trudeau dug in on his disregard of the whole thing as a “racist” diversion. And then, the third in this disoriented troika, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said it was all a lot of overblown hogwash. Until, of course, he almost died from it.
But what really spun the three leaders’ heads went down in mid-March, when the Imperial College of London – the gold standard of epidemiology – released a study modeling various disaster scenarios. Reports at the time suggested that the three leaders had received embargoed copies in order to allow them time to react before the public was let in on the conclusions, which were extremely dire. Dire enough to cause the trio to choke, surely and simultaneously, before doing a coordinated 180 with equally straight faces.
The Imperial College report, not surprisingly, has been critiqued and praised. But up to the day of its release, the hoax-racist-“bah humbug” schools of thought remained hard-baked mantras. For some reason, the unlikely trio seemed to conclude, independently, that they could subvert the virus and make it suit their particular agendas and brands of politically motivated denial.
The universality of coronavirus is busting so many myths. The virus is not a hoax, nor, it seems, is it as virulent as the Spanish flu. Or, for that matter, garden-variety pneumonia, which claims millions of lives globally, every year. What coronavirus exposed was the shamelessness of all political leaders – woke, tyrannical, right wing, left wing, centrist (are there any?) – to resort to outright fibs and fairy tales to spin a narrative that burnishes their image, no matter the truth or consequence.
Which brings me back to Israel.
In Canada, so many people were curious as to what had transpired in Israel. There was a general awareness that we here had slayed the dragon in the first wave, only to be devastated, tsunami-like, thereafter. Too often, I found myself trying to explain the whys and hows of how it all went down.
And what became clear is that the extreme and sinister manipulation of coronavirus for political advantage is a very adaptable trend.
I found myself talking about the demographics of Israel, and how COVID had magnified the most significant tribal divides. In the second wave, I explained, political discontent was also spiking, and nightly demonstrations throughout Israel became a thing. Part of the appeal, I’m sure, was that it was one of the few interactive opportunities consistently available outside of the home. It also served to infuriate the large haredi (ultra-Orthodox) constituency in Israel.
It is impossible to explain how the ultra-Orthodox – comprising 12% of the population – can so brazenly and aggressively refuse to abide by national health directives. (And, yes, I am always careful to note that while many haredim are compliant, many more are not.) On what basis does the health minister continue to go to synagogue, breaching his own directives? How do we explain the conduct of other MKs and influential rabbis – this one going to a super-spreader wedding attended by thousands, that one commanding his flock to continue attending yeshivas and kollels – in flagrant violation of the government’s guidance?
And how, then, does one explain that for successive months, the “government” is incapable of enforcing anything meaningful in the haredi community, while ticketing in other neighborhoods for coronavirus-based infractions is widespread. How is it that 12% of the population, accounting for more than 40% of the COVID-afflicted, can refuse the compromises that we all must make in a broader society, but yet they demand the privilege of universal health care – a luxury (yes, a luxury, not an entitlement) that can only be provided if all citizens participate economically and by adhering to responsible guidelines and conduct.
I tended not to get into the nitty-gritty of reports of senior rabbis using connections to have hospital equipment installed in their homes, avoiding the indignity of a public hospital altogether. Or their claims that the virus spread like mad in gyms (that were closed) or at demonstrations (which I have attended and where people are very conscientious about wearing masks and distancing). Because I simply cannot explain such things.
Nor could I explain the government’s failure to impose lockdown measures selectively on municipalities with sky-high contagion rates and their default to apply equal measures to all of Israel, regardless of compliance.
Such knuckle-headed governing – ignoring regional disparities because it is politically inconvenient – is on the same level as the Trudeau-Trump-Boris trio: rooted in nothing other than vainglory.
Last Saturday, I was watching what I refer to as the post-Shabbat scream-a-thon (otherwise known as the Saturday evening Israeli news talk shows) and listened to a secular Jerusalemite guest explain the outrage of his children stuck at home in Zoom school while the ultra-Orthodox carry on, business as usual, and celebrate. Yes, he used the word “celebrate”, which got a rise out of his haredi counterpart, in the form of a half-hearted shake of the head and denial. Fact is, haredi schools are open. Period.
Regrettably, the phenomenon of non-compliant haredi communities is not limited to Israel, having become an issue – as have disproportionate infection rates – in Montreal, New York, London and likely elsewhere.
This is not a matter of religious freedom but an issue of respect for the blended needs of the broader society. I personally may disagree with many laws, but comply as the price of membership and inclusion and the benefits I receive in return. If I wish to influence change, I find legal and socially acceptable ways to do that. But I do not tear up the social contract and thumb my nose at the other 90% with whom I coexist and share collectively – things like roads and bridges and airports and health-care systems.
And that, I simply cannot explain. 
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014-2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues, and resides in Tel Aviv.