Andrew Potter is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.
By now it should be clear to everyone that we are at war. From the restrictions on civil liberties, to the command economy, to the rationing of key supplies, to the hoarding of food and medicine, to the daily body counts – this is wartime. To underscore this, when the COVID-19 deaths in the United States leapt above the 3,000 mark earlier this week many felt the need to point out that the toll surpassed that of 9/11.
Back in February, when the crisis was still in its early stages in North America, the economist Robin Hanson pointed out on Twitter that we spend a fortune every year maintaining excess military capacity for a war that will never happen. “Maybe,” he added, “we need to approach crisis health care in a similar fashion; have equipment and train people in skills they may never use just in case.”
Other people have since started making a similar point, as it becomes clear that our stockpiles of crucial equipment are inadequate. But we need to push this thinking a lot further, because a military is more than people trained to use specialized equipment, much of it being weapons, platforms and ammunition that will in all likelihood never be used. More than anything else, the military is a highly bureaucratic organization with a very distinctive culture, which is underwritten by a very specific code of conduct that is not very well understood by civilians.
In Canada, that code is spelled out in the 2003 manual Duty With Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada. The core concept in the manual is duty, and it is based on three main principles: First, service in the military is voluntary. Second, the military professional commits to the idea of “service before self” – that is, the needs of the country and the mission take precedence over the individual.
But the third and indispensable concept here is the notion of unlimited liability. This is the idea that all members of the Canadian Forces “accept and understand that they are subject to being lawfully ordered into harm’s way under conditions that lead to the loss of their lives.” No other member of society, including members of the municipal or provincial police, the RCMP, the coast guard, or national border or security services, are subject to unlimited liability. And this, more than anything else, is what distinguishes the soldier from the civilian.
But this is where treating the pandemic response as something like a war gets complicated. Partly it is because the enemy is microscopic and there’s no obvious front line. But beyond that, the war is being fought by people whose day jobs are putting them in harm’s way. And whether it’s their pay grade, skill set or training, the truth of it is they didn’t volunteer for this crisis.
A lot of attention is quite rightly being paid to the medical staff who are at the tip of the spear. These are people whose professional responsibilities and obligations put them in close contact with the sick and the dying. And inevitably many of them are starting to question whether doing their jobs requires that they put their own lives on the line, especially when there isn’t enough protective equipment to go around.
But medical professionals at least have powerful unions and professional bodies to guide and protect them. But outside the hospitals, this war is also being fought by people whose day jobs are unexpectedly putting them in harm’s way. This includes transit workers, flight attendants, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, fulfilment centre employees and any number of other jobs that must be done if the vast majority of the population is to do their part of simply staying home.
But how much risk can they be reasonably expected to take on? It’s not just that their pay levels, training and job descriptions aren’t the sorts of things that normally put you at risk of serious illness or even death – it’s that they don’t operate under the principle of unlimited liability. They can’t be forced to do these jobs, which are suddenly so essential to the fight.
Or can they? As it happens, Section 8 (d) of the federal Emergencies Act empowers the government to direct any person or class of persons to render “essential services” of a type that they are “competent to provide.” That is, the government can force you to do your job in an emergency. It’s not quite unlimited liability, but it’s not far off.
The fight against COVID-19 is a war, and every single one of us is a potential conscript. We need to adjust our thinking accordingly.
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