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Coronavirus chaos south of the border poses a national security threat to Canada

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Image: David J. Climenhaga

U.S. President Donald J. Trump's incompetent and ideologically driven response to the international coronavirus crisis poses a serious national security threat to Canada.

Can we do anything about it? Say, closing the border to non-Canadian travellers from the United States, as Russia sealed its border with China in the first days after it became apparent the initial outbreak of what's now known as the COVID-19 virus had the potential to become a global pandemic?

Almost certainly not. Our economy is too closely interlinked with the crumbling neoliberal monolith next door, and its mentally unbalanced wall-builder of a president would likely treat the idea of anyone else building even a metaphorical wall as an act of war. Anyway, it's almost certainly too late already for that to halt the spread of the disease across our porous continental boundary.

But Canadians had better recognize that the inability of U.S. authorities after three years of Trump's depredations to even test for the new respiratory illness, let alone contain its spread, means we are in for a far more serious public health crisis than we would have been if our country occupied an island in the ocean, like Australia.

In our private moments, I predict, we are soon going to wish that we could build a wall along the world's longest undefended border with the rapidly failing state next door. We might even be willing to pay for it ourselves.

I am not just speaking of COVID-19-infected American business travellers and tourists crossing the border and unintentionally spreading the disease in Canada. This is a problem we can probably deal with through the more effective public health measures already in place in Canada, thanks to our national public health-care system.

Canada's response is also helped by the creation by Jean Chrétien's Liberal federal government of the Public Health Agency of Canada after the Toronto SARS outbreak in 2003, an initiative intended specifically to respond to the potential for future border-crossing pandemics. That's the agency Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer apparently didn't know already exists when he sat down the other day to start tweeting on his euphemistically named "smart" phone -- further evidence we should all be thankful Conservatives are not in power in Ottawa today!

Rather, I'm talking about the potential for significant numbers of refugees from the profit-driven U.S. health-care system attempting to get into Canada and present themselves at hospitals in border regions to get their condition treated, which may not be possible at all in some parts of the United States, and which anywhere in the U.S. carries the risk of financial ruination.

Just going to a hospital to determine whether you have coronavirus or a garden-variety cold can be expensive enough to drive some of the millions of Americans still without health-care insurance into bankruptcy. Here's a report on how it cost one (insured) American US$1,400 in co-pays out of the more than US$3,200 the hospital he went to charged just for simple tests.

Naturally, this is a powerful incentive for Americans not to report the disease or risk trying to have it treated. Combine that with the anti-worker labour laws that exist in many U.S. states -- in which if you stay home sick, you don't get paid, and you may not get to keep your employment -- and you have a dangerous cocktail that could make the spread of coronavirus far harder to contain in the United States than in China.

On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced state health insurers must waive cost sharing associated for COVID-19. Coronavirus costs for emergency room, urgent care and office visits will also be waived. How likely do you think it is that his Republican counterparts will adopt the same policy? Not very.

So there will be an obvious incentive for sick citizens in many border-states to try to slip across the Canadian boundary and throw themselves at the mercy of our public health-care system. And who could blame them? For that matter, as a practical or moral question, how could we say no?

Health care in the United States is a chaotic mess that can't even produce a test kit for COVID-19 that works, let alone use it to determine how far the disease has spread in that country. And the man Trump put in charge of the effort to combat this health care emergency? Vice-President Mike Pence, who doubtless recommends prayer.

What an irony that ideological conservatives in Canada work daily to create the conditions in this country that are turning the United States into a nuclear-armed failed state.

Consider Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta, a man who promotes a fellow who gads about in a "Make America Great Again" cap to an important cabinet post, and starts a war with physicians, nurses and other frontline health care workers, vowing to cut their pay. He is determined to impose U.S.-style privatization on our public health-care system, the sooner the better, and introduce two-tier medicine for essential medical tests. (Sound familiar?)

He also has plans to open up labour laws to make it harder for working people to get sick time, let alone to take it, and to introduce a regime of wage reduction for all but the wealthiest in our society. If he could get away with imposing Republican "right to work" laws on Alberta, he probably would.

And he's declared war on public health care right in the midst of an international pandemic, the full implications of which are not yet apparent! What could possibly go wrong?

Kenney's response to the coronavirus crisis? He's upset because it's causing global oil prices to fall! "It's very clear the coronavirus situation is affecting the global economy," he said. "Mass reduction in air travel, in demand for energy products and commodities generally will affect us."

Yes, it would be a serious problem for Alberta even if we didn't have a government determined to subsidize the fossil fuel industry at the expense of literally almost everything else. But that's hardly the message to be emphasizing in the face of a pandemic.

At least we know what excuse he's going to be using until the next election for the failure of his United Conservative Party's ideologically driven mismanagement of the economy.

Come to think of it, it's too bad we can't put a wall around Kenney, too!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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