Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Canada’s most-awarded
newsroom for a reason
Stay informed for a
lot less, cancel anytime
“Exemplary reporting on
COVID-19” – Herman L
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a news conference, as efforts continue to help slow the spread of COVID-19, in Ottawa, May 25, 2021.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Vivek Goel is a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and Peter Loewen and Janice Stein are professors in political science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, all at the University of Toronto.

Politicians have been at the centre of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve been the ultimate decision-makers on lockdowns, reopening, income supports, travel bans and other measures taken to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. They are often front and centre at press conferences – and they, not public-health officials or scientists, are the ones who will go to voters to be judged, sooner or later.

The pandemic has put the spotlight on assumptions around how we govern ourselves in a democracy. And at the centre of our often heated debates are two big questions: Who should have the final authority on decisions during a pandemic, and what should be the role of politics?

Story continues below advertisement

Over and over, we have heard the calls to take the politics out of the pandemic. But the final authority must rest with politicians. After all, they – not the experts nor the bureaucrats – are the ones who have been elected and are thus accountable to the people, empowering them to make the decisions on trade-offs between competing values and priorities.

That means our political leaders have to take responsibility for their crisis-time choices. When lockdowns and stay-at-home orders reduce transmission rates, we all benefit, although to varying degrees and at a cost: delayed medical visits and procedures, lost businesses, social isolation, an increase in mental-health challenges and reduced quality of education. It is not enough for a politician to say they are “following the science”; they have to be willing to publicly account for the costs of following that science and to take responsibility for the result, acknowledging that science can be evolving, uncertain or conflicted.

The evidence is strong that good public health makes for good politics. Look at the sustained public approval of governments in Atlantic Canada and the steep drop in support for governments in provinces where COVID-19 is raging.

Politics can operate on two levels in a pandemic. There is small-ball partisan politics, where political leaders try to deflect blame onto other levels of government and gain marginal political advantages; we’ve seen quite a bit of that in Canada. When the Ontario government runs ads that blame foreign travellers for the spread of COVID-19 and the federal government for allowing them to enter the country, and the federal government responds by blaming provinces for the slow vaccine rollout, voters tend to turn away and mutter: grow up!

But it’s not all so petty. Big-picture politics sets goals, levels with the public and makes clear how actions connect to outcomes. This type of politics says: “We (the politicians) want you (the citizens) to do this. If you do it, it will lead to the following outcomes. If it doesn’t, you hold us to account.”

However, this kind of politics has been notably absent in Canada, outside of our eastern provinces. When – throughout this pandemic – have politicians set a clear benchmark for COVID-19 performance?

Arguably, until the very recent re-opening plans, the only time came early on, when citizens were told we needed a few weeks to “flatten the curve.” That argument was informed by the science and epidemiology available at the time. The thinking was that if we could reduce social contact for a short period, we could get the virus under control and treat existing cases, while public-health officials could use the time to prepare.

Story continues below advertisement

Unfortunately, that message was wrong; the virus had already spread widely in the community in many parts of the country, so initial lockdowns stretched on much longer than anticipated. Since then, there have been no clear goals or benchmarks (until very recently), and the justifications for each additional two- or three-week extension have been less credible than the last. The collective self-deception – that we could “return to normal” if we held on for a few more weeks – has eroded public confidence and trust.

Politicians need to articulate a clear plan that goes beyond these short-term bursts. They need to tell us how we will exit the pandemic and how long it will take, how we will cope with a virus that will be with us in some way for a long time, and how to manage and reduce its effects. Politicians, not experts, need to own this plan. They will get the credit they deserve if it succeeds, but they should be ready to lose their jobs if it does not. That is why we need politics in a pandemic.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies