Matt Gurney: How the COVID crisis broke our leaders' minds

A constant through this pandemic: no one in authority has the slightest idea what they were supposed to be doing, or even what they could do.

Let's talk about COVID, Canadian politicians and leadership in times of crisis.

But first, let's talk about Pearl Harbor and the Yom Kippur War. More generally, let’s talk about what happens when leaders get caught totally by surprise by a disaster … and when they ignore the warnings that one is coming.

Two examples are instructive. The first I've mentioned in a column before, but it's simply too perfect to pass up: on Dec. 7, 1941, a U.S. Army Air Force lieutenant was spending his first-ever shift with a radar unit atop some Hawaiian high ground. Radar was brand new technology, and the U.S. was still figuring out how to best use it. The poor lieutenant watched on a scope as a big blob of something approached the naval base. He assumed it was a bunch of friendly planes coming in from the U.S. — what else would it be, right? Besides, even if he had been worried, there was no established protocol to sound an alarm. Forty-some-odd years before the release of Ghostbusters, the poor lieutenant was living the iconic tagline — when there’s a big mass of planes flying toward your base, who ya gonna call? And so the lieutenant and his men could only watch Japan's massively successful attack on the U.S. fleet, an attack that caught the American defenders totally unprepared, with sailors asleep in their racks and senior officers golfing or breakfasting. There had been some intelligence warnings that Japan was up to something, but no one guessed that an attack on Hawaii was imminent. Not even the guys who quite literally saw it coming.

Let's jump forward a few decades: in 1973, Israeli military intelligence was fully aware of a huge build-up of men and weapons on its borders with Syria and Egypt. The mobilizations were impossible to hide — tens of thousands of troops, tanks, artillery, the whole apparatus of modern warfare was lining up across Israel's borders. But Israel's top military intelligence officer concluded that the build-up was intended to apply political pressure ahead of negotiations, not actually to prepare for an assault. Israel was militarily superior, after all, and had handily defeated the combined Arab armies before, including just six years prior. The Arabs simply wouldn't dare try again. Right?

Wrong. They dared, Israel was caught totally by surprise, and the Jewish state came shockingly close to defeat and likely destruction. 

Ideally, these kinds of mistakes — mistakes of preparedness, mistakes of erroneous conclusion — are studied, learned from and then never repeated. In the real world, of course, we tend to make the same mistakes over and over. Canadians have been treated in recent memory to a demonstration of this in real time. The country that prided itself on knowing how to handle a novel coronavirus threat thanks to our experience in 2003 with SARS sat around blinking in incomprehension as SARS's nastier sequel swept the globe and caught us with our pants 'round our ankles in early 2020. Despite many weeks of warning, and our supposed accumulated wisdom and expertise from the near-disaster of only 16 years before, we simply watched COVID-19 roll over us and spent the first few months of the pandemic trying to catch up.

That's one of the problems with surprise disasters, whether they be military or natural. Intellectual appreciation that danger exists, in the abstract or otherwise, does not in and of itself prepare one for the experience of actually experiencing it.

When things go well, danger is spotted and addressed before a crisis becomes acute. But things don’t always go well. That's what training is for. Thanks to experiences like Pearl Harbor, the Yom Kippur War and the Sept. 11 attacks, another total surprise that befell unprepared defenders and first responders, we in theory regularly train critical personnel in what to do in case of sudden disaster. By making certain reactions, on both an institutional and personal level, almost entirely reflexive through repetitive training and realistic exercises, certain vital defensive actions can be accomplished automatically, allowing vital decision-makers and critical first responders the ability to gather their thoughts and assess the situation, even briefly, while confident that vital seconds aren't being wasted.


Consider 9/11: even though no one knew quite what was happening in those early minutes and hours, both the firefighters in New York and Washington, and the pilots on Air Force One, knew, at least in a general sense, what to do. Rescue efforts began at once. The president was put into the air and later into the safety of a military base, while at the White House, Secret Service and military personnel secured the vice-president and other key leaders in a bunker with communication links to the outside world and U.S. military forces. Sept. 11 was hardly a success story of intelligence gathering, planning and preparedness, but even in moments of total panic and confusion, the training mostly worked. Reflexes honed during Cold War exercises for sudden nuclear war sprung into action and kept the U.S. government functioning. Swift reaction by well-trained first responders at the attack sites saved lives.

A pandemic is a low-probability, high-impact event, but it's certainly one of the more likely planning scenarios that Canadian officials should train and prepare for. There should have been checklists and protocols, and people trained in their application, that should have been referred to in January, at the latest. Should we close airports? If not, what should we do there to make things safer? Do we have enough PPE? Do we have all our communication protocols worked out for different departments and jurisdictions? Even if the crisis had fizzled, this still would have been a worthy exercise.

But when it finally hit Canada, it seemed like no one in authority, with a few very possible rare exceptions that largely prove the rule, had the slightest idea what they were supposed to be doing, the critical first steps that should have been taken immediately, or even what their ministries and agencies were (and were not!) capable of. I will never forget landing at Toronto Pearson Airport just as the panic of the first wave was arriving, and strolling through it like I owned the place, subject only to the most minimal of additional digital scrutiny via a touch screen that asked if I was returning from China, Iran or Italy. (I wasn’t.) All this while public safety minister Bill Blair was assuring Canadians that our airports had been beefed up with extra safety measures.

I've often wondered since then what the hell the minister was doing. Did he know he was lying, but chose to project calm? Or was he simply so disconnected from the reality on the ground that he believed that memos and directives from his office actually translated into real, tangible results in our airports?

And a year later, we’re doing it once more, with feeling. On Thursday, and only after weeks of pressure, the federal government announced that incoming flights from India and Pakistan would be suspended for 30 days. There has been a dramatic explosion of COVID in India, leading to scenes of sheer horror in hospital parking lots and overwhelmed mortuaries. Little-understood variants are believed to be at least partially responsible, and in the face of yet more early warning of an evolving threat to the Canadian public, with planes arriving from the subcontinent daily, the government of Canada ... didn't do much of anything for weeks. Again.

What good is early warning if no one reacts when the alarm goes off?

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Early warning has its limits, of course. The Canadian public has been treated to a crisis in leadership of a different sort this week. It would take an entire column to fully recap the weirdness of the last seven days in Ontario politics, fortunately, I already wrote one. And then another. But the upshot: in response to a steadily worsening situation in the province's hospitals, a crisis that he was warned about but did little to mitigate, Premier Doug Ford's government issued a series of bonkers public-health orders last Friday, triggered a massive public backlash and repudiation by dozens of the province's police forces, and retreated less than 24 hours later. The premier then simply vanished, entirely, for a matter of days; though his office eventually announced that Ford had been exposed to COVID-19 and was self-isolating, the timing didn't explain much of the absence. For days, the premier just ... went dark. No one seemed to know who was running the Ontario government in the middle of a genuine public-safety crisis.

From the outside, this looked ominously like one of the other kind of failures that can crop up during an emergency: the leader snapping under the strain. One of the secondary benefits of decent intelligence gathering and early warning capabilities is that leaders can be brought up to speed gradually and slowly. The moment of disaster should never be the first time they learn of a threat. Regular briefings and updates give them time to make sense of even the worst news, to accept the horrific and make peace with what’s happening. But even the best systems can't bypass our nature — denial in the face of disaster is a very human impulse, and Ford and his government had seemed absolutely convinced that no disaster was imminent until it was upon them (and almost 15 million Ontarians).

This could be an institutional failure, with critical information being withheld from senior leadership (the public performance of Ontario’s leading public health professionals does not inspire confidence in the advice Ford is getting), or it could be a failure of the senior leadership itself, with grim news simply ignored and rationalized away — no, the Egyptians and Syrians won’t dare attack us — for political or personal reasons. It's impossible to say precisely what Ford's state of mind is, of course, but if his teary press conference on Thursday morning is any indication — the premier broke down shortly after apologizing for the recent chaotic decisions out of his office — we can probably assume it's not great. 

I don't enjoy speculating about anyone's mental state. I don’t wish to now. But history is replete with examples of leaders, confronted with the unavoidable truth that enormous disasters they had refused to accept were unfolding, simply … going numb. Shutting down. Becoming totally ineffective and often withdrawing into a private state of emotional crisis. And I can only imagine that those historical episodes looked an awful lot like what we in Ontario saw from Saturday until Thursday. During his days-long absence from public view, Ford’s office tweeted a bleak photo of him sitting forlornly at a desk, with a notepad and pen, and a thousand quips immediately rose up as one: it was a proof of life photo, confirming to Ontarians that, despite the rumours, the premier was still alive and in control.

Alive? Clearly. In control? Ehhh.

Sometime in the next few months, this pandemic is going to end. The ending may be tragic and sloppy, but the arriving vaccines will eventually stamp this damned thing out. When it is over, among the many things Canadians must ask themselves is whether their leaders met that most basic test: were they effective at avoiding what of this disaster could be avoided, and mitigating what could not? Compared to other leaders in other crises, how did our leaders stack up in the fight against COVID-19?

From my vantage today, in a country that is only belatedly closing down its airspace to a new hot spot of infection and a province whose leader’s current effectiveness is questionable, at best, the answer seems clear. As danger approached our country, indeed, as it began to overwhelm parts of it, our leaders couldn’t accept that it was happening, and seemed to have damn little idea what to do when the walls of denial finally came crashing down.

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