COVID-19 and Politics

Up until this point I have had little to say on the topic of dealing with COVID-19, because, quite frankly, there was not enough information available to make any decisions. The medical experts were tap-dancing madly, keeping their feet moving to keep their balance, and I was happy to follow their lead. During the First Wave, when almost everyone was onside, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s approach seemed the best.

Things Have Changed

But we are now deep into the Second Wave, and the situation is different. The science of our defence strategy is firming up, and is likely to bear fruit eventually. Now, it is the politics of our response that needs work.

And here I find myself deviating from Dr. Henry’s approach. In a theoretical sense, I’m all for it. A “suggested” policy that everyone agrees with is the best way to motivate a population to comply. This motivational approach, backed by a serious shutdown, worked very well for British Columbians in the First Wave. Note that the same approach, without the shutdown, did not work for Sweden.

However, we are in a different situation now. Epidemic fatigue has set in, and people are simply not amenable to the velvet glove approach. Putting the onus on store owners to decide when to apply mask rules was not working. So now, B. C. has a rule. Masks in public places. Period.

Not So Fast

However, it must be noted that the main spread of the disease lately has not been businesses and schools, but has been in-home social gatherings. Unless the Epidemic Police are willing to start major raids in the homes of the general populace, these rules will still depend mostly on voluntary compliance, not enforcement. Here, a clear message with a possible penalty will work best.

Mixed Messages

One of the main complaints we hear from every angle is that the approach to the epidemic is not unified. Mixed messages have been the rule, not the exception. And this is correct. Especially during the early stages, government officials were forced to change their message when scientific evidence came in that indicated a certain policy wasn’t working. Remember the kafuffle over whether we should all be wearing masks? There was always the suspicion that the government was backing off from recommending masks so that the restricted supply could be given to the front line workers that needed them most. There’s nothing wrong with that approach in an emergency, except that it sets the government up for a lapse in trust when they are validly accused of acting against the scientific principles they were otherwise espousing. Later, when they changed their minds and their policy, they lost further credibility. The last thing governments and the scientific community needed was to be shown bowing to political expediency.

So, having dug themselves into a credibility hole, how are all three levels of government going to haul themselves out?

Power Politics

It is unfortunate that the need for a unified and clear message falls so neatly into the right wing agenda. The simplistic demand to “do something” dovetails with the desire to trash Trudeau and the Liberals. The more autocratic-leaning members of the small-c conservative base are quite happy to have a “strong leader to take charge.” Meaning: “a leader who makes unilateral decisions that I agree with.” Imagine Trudeau coming out with a mandate that everyone must wear a mask in public, and think of the flurry of changing right wing attitudes towards strong leaders.

Let it be understood that a unified and clear message does not necessarily follow from an autocratic approach. The best approach is the democratic one, where leaders of different parties at different levels of government get together and agree on something. Time and again this has been the approach that motivates the population. Match this with the fact that the epidemic is hitting different parts of the country on different schedules, and affects rural areas differently from cities, and you must come to the conclusion that a one-size-fits-all top-down decree is a sure way to demotivate the population and destabilize the economy.

The Bottom Line

Clear and unified messaging is imperative; autocratic fiat is counter-productive. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Federal Liberal leader and the mostly-Conservative provincial premiers could sit down and thrash out a Canada-wide umbrella policy, with easily-denoted timelines and clear benchmarks, and leave the provinces to apply these rules to their individual areas in the best way possible?Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s the way Candian government is supposed to function.

Vaccines are four or five months away. We will survive if the people and our leaders work together. If everybody is only looking towards winning the next election, we have only to look to our southern border for an object lesson.

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