It’s a phrase that politicians are starting to throw around with depressing, matter-of-fact certainty: the second wave of the pandemic will be worse than the first.
On this Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, especially in the “hot zones” of COVID-19, that is exactly how it feels — and certainly the surging case counts make it look that way.
It’s more than just the numbers, though. The “worse than first” feature of this second wave of the pandemic goes directly to citizen morale and the challenge it presents to politicians across the country in the coming weeks.
Back in March, when Justin Trudeau, public health officials, cabinet ministers and premiers began their daily briefings, the tone was chipper and defiant: “We’re all in this together,” and, “We’ve got your back.”
But when was the last time that anyone talked about the economy coming “roaring back” — another stock phrase of the early pandemic? It was a lot easier for the politicians to be optimistic when it looked like the next thing after a lockdown would be a step-by-step recovery — not another lockdown.
COVID-19’s sequel, however, is more COVID-19, and more hardship for many Canadians. Economic aid is rolling out again, but the most difficult task for politicians in the second wave will be managing leadership, governance and a citizenry sagging under the weight of a prolonged crisis.
Here, beyond sheer crisis fatigue, are all the ways in which politics in the second wave is going to be exponentially more difficult for leaders to manage than it was in the first:
Choice: Shutting everything down in March didn’t involve a lot of picking and choosing: governments sorted out what defined an essential business and everything else was shuttered for what people assumed would be a matter of weeks or maybe months.
The “targeted” approach to deal with the second wave requires more complex sorting and choosing what is essential business.
Blame: Back when the coronavirus was more of a mystery, something foreign introduced to Canada, no one was really looking for who was at fault for outbreaks. If people caught the virus, that was because they didn’t know how to avoid it.
But after months and months of public education and health warnings, Canadians will be tempted to blame careless citizens for the second wave. Resentment threatens to run high in communities where the spread will be seen to have been avoidable. “Snitch” cultures will emerge, with citizens policing each other on everything from proper mask etiquette to crowd counts.
Caution is a good thing in a crisis, but mutual suspicion among the population can get toxic. It definitely takes the wind out of all those “we’re in this together” exhortations and makes it harder to rally people together. And politicians will stand at the head of the line when people are looking for someone to blame.
Partisanship: The first wave of the pandemic ushered in a wave of cross-party, federal-provincial co-operation that eroded after a few months. Opposition parties started questioning whether the governments in power had a grasp on the crisis, or worse, whether they had done enough to avoid it. Premiers started taking swipes at Ottawa again.
Now that those accusations are out there, it will be hard for government critics to take them back, even if they wanted to revert to the heady non-partisan atmosphere of the first wave.
Weather: It was a lucky break — if anything about this pandemic can be called lucky — that it hit when spring was around the corner in Canada. Even if people were locked down in their houses, they could look forward to warmer weather to get out and see their neighbours and friends at safe distance or exercise out their frustration with brisk walks.
With the second wave descending on the country around the same time as the frost warnings, though, any new lockdown will feel like enforced hibernation. Moreover, many of the things that Canadians do to relieve the long cold winter — going to movies, restaurants, heading south, indoor sports — threaten to remain unavailable options. This is going to make people even more grumpy than they already are, and turn crisis fatigue into crisis hostility.
Every competent politician can handle grouchy voters. It’s kind of a job requirement. But the two sentiments that sitting governments watch and fear most closely in the polls are “time for a change” and “the country is headed in the wrong direction.”
The second wave of COVID-19 most definitely will have citizens wishing for change and resenting the direction this crisis has headed. Those are perilous opinions for politicians to manage, which is why they keep telling us that this second wave will be worse than the first.