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OPINION | The Niki Ashton Case and the Need for Balance on COVID-19 Restrictions

With spiking case counts across the country during the second wave of COVID-19, many Canadians were understandably upset when reports came that a number of politicians jetted off to exotic locales for winter vacations. After all, the public was repeatedly warned against congregating with family for the holidays (though it appears from subsequent polling that many did not heed this advice) and in particular, against non-essential international travel. Though the federal government has not explicitly banned vacationing during the pandemic (likely due to legal questions that such a ban would bring), it has consistently messaged against taking unnecessary risks.  When those in power seem to live by the motto “do as I say, not as I do”, this decreases public trust in government and leads to individual members of the public not taking the problems posed by COVID-19 seriously. Particularly given the number of conspiracy theories and more general downplaying of the virus which are freely circulating, such behavior risks creating social contagion and validating ill-informed “COVID skeptics”. 

Pam Palmater recently wrote a piece for Macleans magazine which lumped all of these cases together in a full-throated denunciation of the Canadian political class for its entitlement and neglect of duty. Though her outrage was certainly warranted, one case that she references, that of New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Niki Ashton, merits some further thought that those of politicians who simply jetted off for a Caribbean getaway. In brief, Ashton traveled to Greece over the December holiday season to visit her very ill grandmother. She had previously visited this same grandmother during the summer of 2020, receiving the blessing of NDP party leader Jagmeet Singh to do so. Defending her actions, Ashton stated that she followed all relevant COVID protocols and that her trip had been approved by the Greek government. 

“Essential” Travel Is Poorly Defined

What makes Ashton’s case different? In addition to the lack of a formal federal government definition for what “essential” versus “non-essential” travel, it should be plainly obvious that visiting a sick or dying relative is not the same thing as a vacation. The Greek government, in fact, currently has a ban on “non-essential” incoming travel to the country in light of COVID concerns but felt that Ashton’s situation passed the threshold to be exempt. It could easily be argued that current restrictions and stigma around air travel, without appreciation of the nuances of each individual case, unduly targets Canadians with recent immigrant heritage who still have family in other countries. If Ashton’s grandmother lived in Manitoba, there is a reasonable chance that a visit to her would have happened without incident or public notice, even if it was technically against COVID rules. Simply because she happens to have close relatives living in another country who were in a dire state of health, she is now being lumped in with other “irresponsible” politicians who traveled over Christmas. Many others with family members dear to them outside of Canada can doubtless relate to this sort of a double standard.

It is true, of course, that many other Canadians who are not Members of Parliament have, in the course of the pandemic, endured the hardship of not being able to be with a beloved grandmother or other relatives in their last moments. Ashton should not get a free pass on this where others have not, however sympathetic her case, simply because she is a person in a prominent position. She may have been following the exact letter of the law, but she was likely not following the spirit of “stay at home” as popularly understood. In this sense, the NDP was right to impose some reprimand by stripping her of her critical portfolios (she also apparently did not discuss her intent to travel with the party leadership office beforehand, which likely added to the impetus to do this). At the same time, the party could have used the situation as a teachable moment to ask for pragmatic policy changes on the part of federal and provincial governments: clarification of what the terms of “non-essential” travel and visitation are, and an exemption from orders forbidding visitation for those cases where family members are terminally ill. This would be a compassionate approach which recognizes the unique psychological and (in many cases) spiritual harm that comes with not being able to bid a loved one farewell, while keeping the exemption narrowly tailored to this case.

Of course, such an exemption would need to be carefully formulated to avoid abuse and subject to a degree of oversight and vetting. There is also the challenge that many individuals live out their last moments in settings such as hospitals and long-term care homes where the virus poses a more acute threat. Nevertheless, the decision to allow visitations or not could be made on a case-by-case basis depending on the circumstances of individual families and institutions. The case could also be made that such exemptions would represent a “slippery slope” and create license for other activities. This is a risk, but one that could be mitigated through effective messaging and by pointing to existing allowances in restrictions (such as the minor exemption for dog walking in the Quebec curfew rules).

Fighting COVID Has Consequences

COVID-19 is a deadly illness that has killed nearly 20,000 of our fellow citizens thus far and has created a great deal of harm to many more besides. Now that the vaccine rollout has begun, despite the exhaustion of dealing with pandemic restrictions over the past year, we should remain vigilant and continue to follow public health guidance in order to minimize further loss of life and return to a relative level of normality as quickly as possible. Government messaging should evolve to emphasize that there is now, in fact, a timeline for when restrictions can safely end, which would encourage greater adherence to measures for now. At the same time, even those who recognize the seriousness of COVID and the need for these restrictions should acknowledge that they come with considerable harms. Learning loss for children due to issues with online-based schooling could set students back months or even years in terms of development (and is likely highly inequitably distributed by income level), victims of domestic violence are now locked down with their abusers on a 24/7 basis, and rates of mental health distress have increased considerably, to name a few. There is room for healthy debate about in which instances restrictions do indeed “go too far” that can be had without emboldening those who would deny that COVID-19 is any more serious than a common flu. In fact, a more balanced discussion on restrictions would act to recognize and partly disarm some of the legitimate concerns that such denialism preys upon.

In addition to the fact that government should be providing more supports to allow people stay home comfortably (including paid sick leave and additional funding for low-income families with children), they can and should make clear that certain exceptional life events (such as the death of a loved one) do definitively fall into an “essential” category. The government of Ontario’s current “stay-at-home” order has been rightly criticized for its extremely vague nature and the potential for arbitrary enforcement, which could target marginalized populations. Moving in the opposite direction would entail clearer delineations between acceptable and non-acceptable activities and an approach which recognizes that some life events create significant mental harm which must be balanced with the physical health risks. Niki Ashton’s case speaks to the problem of trying to get this delicate balance right. Though it is right that she should face some repercussions for not following the rules that all Canadians should be expected to, it is worth questioning how those rules could be made more humane in the first place.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
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