NDP Member of Parliament Niki Ashton used her holidays to visit her ill grandmother in Greece. She should be commended for this act of compassion – instead, she was stripped of her cabinet critic positions and subjected to public shaming for choosing to travel when non-essential travel is being limited.
Elected leaders travelling to exotic locations for their Christmas holidays during the COVID-19 crisis are rightly being called out for failing to practice what they preach. But it’s unfortunate that there has not been greater discretion by the media, as well as Canadians, when engaging in the public judgment of travelling politicians.
The COVID pandemic has taught us what many already knew – that we have much work to do in the area of elder care in our country. We are clearly struggling to protect and care for our vulnerable elders, and the public shaming of politicians such as Ashton is counterproductive and appalling.
Ashton travelled to Greece, a country that has closed its borders to all non-essential travel. To go there, she had to apply and have her trip approved by that country. The Greeks recognized the essential nature of her visit and granted her access. Are we really unwilling to do the same? What was no doubt a difficult visit was made unnecessarily more difficult when she returned to political censure and demotion within her party.
Liberal MP Kamal Khera is another politician on the list of those who traveled over the holidays. She attended a small memorial service for her father in Seattle just before Christmas, and came home to mandatory quarantine and non-mandatory political attacks. Are we really going to let people’s jobs be threatened over attending their parent’s funeral?
Having seen the rapid worldwide spread of COVID-19 due to the interconnectedness of our globe, leaders have made efforts to restrict non-essential travel, especially across international borders. But it is wrong to suggest that compassionate care for our elders is non-essential.
We are facing an elder care crisis in Canada, and multiple voices are calling attention to an epidemic of loneliness – an epidemic that was present before the pandemic, with around 25 per cent of senior men and 40 per cent of senior women (1.4 million Canadians) – reporting feeling lonely.
The pandemic has only made this worse, and allowing business travel while deeming visits to elderly family members non-essential shows that we have no hope of turning the tide of loneliness without a massive cultural and attitudinal shift.
Caring for our elders is not optional. It is an issue that requires a whole-of-society effort. This type of care by family members should be a defining characteristic of our country, a country that is rapidly aging. Politicians who use their holidays to visit ailing family members should be commended, not censured.
If anything, this type of travel should be prioritized over and above business-related travel. This type of travel is why exceptions to stay-home orders exist; to allow human connection for those for whom it otherwise might be too late.
When public-health orders allow us to go to work, and shop, and fly around the world on important business, but do not allow us to visit our aging and ailing family members, we are prioritizing economic health over social, emotional, spiritual, and mental health. When longstanding, committed politicians have their careers upended over traveling to visit a sick grandmother, we have lost our sense of common sense and compassion.
We are repeatedly told that "we’re all in this together." So, let’s act like it. We’re all doing our best to live and work in a safe manner, and to stay connected to those we love. Our politicians are human, too, and yes, those who went on tropical vacations that they tried to keep secret deserve to face questions. But those who attended their father’s memorial or visited their ailing grandmother do not deserve to be lumped into that group.
All of us, especially the leadership in our political parties, need to do a better job differentiating essential, compassionate travel from fancy vacations, and then be willing to defend those who deserve defending.
Anna Nienhuis is research coordinator with the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada, and principal drafter of its latest policy report on Elder Care.