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?
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.
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.
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