COVID and Democracy: Part 1
With COVID case numbers undergoing a worrying up-tick, it looks like most Western countries will soon be considering whether or not to enter into a second lockdown, similar to what we all did back in March, in order to once again ‘flatten the curve’. I’ll predict now that in the speeches we’re about to hear from politicians and civil servants there’s going to be a lot of discussion about what ‘the data’, ‘the evidence’ and ‘the science’ tells us to do about the ensuing COVID surge. In narrow terms, I don’t have an issue with this approach to pandemic management. Our previous experience and knowledge should obviously guide our future actions. However, throughout the COVID crisis I think talk of ‘the science’ has had a duel nature. Sometimes, science has been invoked in an honest way, an individual or organisation has generated some piece of data and genuinely wants to draw attention to this knowledge so that it can inform decision-making. However, science has also been invoked as a rhetorical cudgel. Politicians like to pretend that unpopular decisions, or actions undertaken for partisan benefit, simply ‘had to be done’ because ‘that’s what the evidence demanded’.
Anyone following the management of the pandemic in Ontario might have had doubts early on as to whether the provincial government was being led in its actions solely by disinterested scientific empiricism. Both Ontario and Quebec went into lock-down on March 24, with each province publishing a long list of exempted ‘essential’ industries. As neighboring provinces in an industrial first-world country one might have expected that these lists would be more-or-less similar. However, as it turned out, Ontario was much more liberal in what it deemed an essential industry. Almost all construction was allowed to continue through the lock-down in Ontario whereas in Quebec construction was mostly shut down. Similarly, in the mining industry, Quebec chose to shutter most activity except for aluminium production whereas Ontario allowed most existing mining production and even mineral exploration efforts to keep going. Perhaps there are rock-solid, evidence-based explanations for why Ontario had a lighter lock-down than Quebec, but I have my doubts. I have a feeling that if you were a concerned exec hoping the province would allow you to stay in business through the lock-down, the date of your last donation to the Progressive Conservative party, or the ability to get on a call with Doug Ford, was probably more important than the number of peer-reviewed epidemiology or economics papers you were able to cite. The examples of political expediency trumping evidence-based policy aren’t confined to the early days of the pandemic. Just in the past week the government of Ontario announced that individuals will not be allowed to gather in groups of more than ten people, unless, that is, those individuals are children attending reopened schools, in which case they will be allowed to gather in “cohorts of approximately 15 students".
While it’s fun to skewer the Ford government for its contradictory and ascientific COVID policy, I think there’s a deeper issue with how society has been able to respond to the COVID crisis. The truth of the matter is that ‘the science’ only gets you so far. Scientific investigation can answer narrow questions about, for example, the usefulness of mask wearing, or the efficacy of a vaccine. But pandemic management is not simply about collating lists of interventions that work and don’t work. Almost every intervention has some cost associated with it and the cost of any given intervention may not be borne by all people equally. I think its possible that one society, looking at the costs associated with keeping children out of school for upwards of a year, might decide they were willing to tolerate the greater risk of transmission associated with class cohorts of 15. Another society might value safety and education equally highly and decide to bear the extra cost associated with hiring extra teachers to reopen schools with cohorts of 10 students. Nearly all the decisions that need to be made regarding pandemic management are political decisions, and we normally believe that political decisions should have some sort of democratic input. However, at the moment, in almost every democratic country, the leaders making political decisions about who will be exposed to what amount of risk were elected before the COVID crisis.
Of course, once elected, politicians always end up making decisions without further democratic input that profoundly affect people’s lives. The COVID crisis has merely raised the stakes of these decisions, and made the blatantly partisan decisions more viscerally objectionable. But once we’ve concluded that this happens, and is unfair, where do we go? I think people’s slow realisation of their own voicelessness, even in nominally democratic countries, has caused a lot of diffuse anger and resentment over the course of this year. I think one way to remedy this would be to create new democratic processes to give people direct input into decisions that impact their lives. In next month’s newsletter I’ll try and explore what these processes could look like.
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