Personal responsibility, government inaction and Alberta's COVID response

Personal responsibility and the role of the government cannot be so easily disentangled, and success is almost impossible without some guiding hand.

Officials have maintained it's up to individuals to beat the virus, but collective action has failed

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, have said throughout the pandemic that it is up to individuals to follow recommendations and beat back the virus. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

When COVID-19 first appeared and spread across the globe, people and governments reacted with alarm. Action was swift. 

In Alberta, businesses shuttered as the government imposed restrictions, some for good. People mostly stayed inside. Premier Jason Kenney said it was a generational challenge and his government would rise to meet it. 

But restrictions were loosened as the weather warmed. The most dire predictions did not come to pass. All of a sudden that BBQ seemed like less of a risk. Maybe a drink on a patio was not such a big thing. People held parties and their neighbours thought: why not me? 

Disinformation spread, and with it, doubt about the dangers of the virus and the actions of the government. 

But warnings were everywhere. 

The second wave. The fight isn't over. Be prepared. Fall back. Many listened, but too many did not. In Alberta, the government said the economy could not take another hit and it was up to individuals to stem the tide. It delayed and equivocated. 

Almost as fast as the season changed from summer to winter, the virus was back and more ferocious than ever. Now the talk was about exponential growth and warnings about hospital capacity being overwhelmed.

As Kenney prepares to make an announcement on COVID on Tuesday afternoon, however, he has so far stuck to the idea that personal responsibility is the key to fighting the outbreak.

  • The province is scheduled to give a COVID-19 briefing at 4:30 p.m. MT. You can watch the briefing here and on CBC Edmonton and CBC Calgary's Facebook feeds.

Just as he and his government have pointed their fingers at individuals for not obeying the recommendations of politicians and public health figures, now many an individual finger is pointed back and laying blame squarely at the feet of the government. 

Laying blame, however, is no easy thing. 

Personal responsibility and the role of the government cannot be so easily disentangled, and success is almost impossible without some guiding hand. The reasons why individuals and the government have behaved as they have go to the heart of what Alberta is and who Albertans are, or at least who they perceive themselves to be. 

But it all starts with the basic ways in which people, in general, deal with crises. 

The psychology of a pandemic

There is an old view of the world in which people react with panic when confronted with danger — that our reactions to a threat do as much or more harm than the threat we face, but that's not often the case. 

Social psychologists have shown that the greater risk is an underestimation of danger and not reacting in time to save ourselves. We also have a tendency to believe that the worst will not happen to us, it will only happen to others. 

It's a dangerous psychological stew, particularly when intertwined with misinformation.

None of it should come as a surprise. 

Doctors wearing masks to protect against the Spanish flu, which killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

"I have a bit of a weird, long-standing interest in dystopian literature and plagues through history," says Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alberta. 

"And so along the way, I've done an awful lot of reading about the Great Mortality, black plague, and about the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918. And I would just say that every single thing that has happened could have been predicted by reading a history book."

People then, as now, react in strange ways to an invisible existential threat. Many embrace conspiracy theories or crazy cures while ignoring the best medical advice. Many deny the problem. 

When mixed with the potent force of social media, the spread is wide, damaging and difficult to control. It creates deep divisions in society at a time where cohesion is key if individuals are to take responsibility for beating back the virus. 

Collective action problem

There are some times when 51 per cent is good enough, it gets you where you need to go. If just enough people do the right thing, everyone will be swept along by the good deeds, even if they did nothing themselves to get there. 

A virus — an airborne virus — doesn't work that way. 

We find ourselves in a classic collective action problem — a sort of societal pyramid scheme — where almost universal buy-in is required. We all have to keep distance and wear masks and wash our hands and limit social interactions or just stay home. If we don't all do it, it all falls apart, the virus gets a foothold and it spreads. 

Saxinger thinks the province has reached the ceiling on what independent cooperation can do. She's not alone.

Compounding the problem of collective action is the nature of the virus and the perception of risk. Research has shown that individuals are more likely to make moral decisions when ambiguity about the risks is reduced — both to others and to ourselves.

Prof. Leslie Francis works in the faculties of law, medicine and philosophy at the University of Utah. She says the vast majority of people understand they have an obligation not to put other people at risk by, say, speeding down a residential road at 100 km/h. But people might not make the same connection with COVID-19. 

A group of anti-mask protesters, one holding a QAnon sign, meet in Calgary on Sept. 27. (Helen Pike/CBC)

"What we see going on right now is that many people deny that COVID exists, or they think it's not going to make people very sick, or they think that it won't make them very sick, maybe they'll even be asymptomatic," she says.

"But they don't realize that, for example, in my own state right now, the estimate is that one in 73 people right now is actively contagious."

It's part and parcel of the way we judge our behaviours and the behaviours of others based on what we observe, but also on how we perceive our own political culture and what it will allow. 

In Alberta, a lot of it might be built on myth.

Alberta's political culture

Jared Wesley, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, has a little experiment he uses when asking participants about the province in his ongoing study of politics and culture. He gets them to sketch out their typical Albertan and then he asks questions about what that Albertan would do in certain situations. 

The Albertan — here nicknamed "Joe" — is always male, often a farmer, a libertarian conservative. 

The point is not to find out what the participants think about certain situations, but what they think the typical Albertan will do in an attempt to narrow in on what people believe the political culture to be — that which determines what is acceptable and what is possible.

In the pandemic, Joe reacts in a specific way.

"They will tell you, like you see in the media everywhere, they'll tell you all Albertans will never stand for mask mandates because it's an infringement on their freedoms," says Wesley.

That sort of statement comes from people across the political spectrum, not just those who agree with their typical Albertan. 

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, second left, hosts a Stampede breakfast with visiting premiers in 2019, before the COVID pandemic. The Stampede is a symbol of Alberta's perceived culture. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

And that shapes the way we think about the world around us and can even shape our own behaviour. We make moral decisions based on how we think others might perceive us. 

In other words, if people think that the broader society does not want to have its freedoms restricted in order to reduce the risk of a pandemic — even in minor ways like donning a mask — they are less likely to be strict about those virus-beating behaviours, and less likely to feel judged for their laxity. 

This, despite a majority not agreeing with their so-called typical Albertan. 

"Do a survey like we just did three or four weeks ago: Albertans are massively in favour of heavier restrictions," says Wesley. 

"You ask them on an individual basis, would you like to see a provincewide mask mandate, doesn't matter if they're rural areas. Absolutely, it's the right thing to do. They going to push for it? No, because they don't think that the rest of the province would accept it."

But at some point that tide could turn.

Certainly now, there are more and more voices calling for the government to act and impose more severe restrictions, including a complete lockdown, in order to fight surging case counts. 

The collective is screaming out that collective action has failed. 

So far, it hasn't worked.

But the ethics of action are clear, even if the ultimate answers are not. 

The ethics

Francis says there is a clear difference between someone who foregoes the best advice of medical professionals when the only harm that can come is to themselves versus someone who walks around "in such a way that they create a real risk of harm to other people who shouldn't have to be expected to never go outside in order to protect themselves."

Individuals are expected to go about in the world obeying the rules so that a free society can operate in a mostly free way. 

Rights without responsibilities is chaos. 

Social norms, as much as laws or personal revulsions, keep most of us from hurting one another, but like the collective action problem outlined previously, there is never a full participation rate. Murders, rapes, assaults, reckless endangerment and more happen on a regular basis. 

So there are laws around running red lights, physical assaults, murder and the like. Even the most stringent libertarians agree there is some role for the state when it comes to ensuring legal protections or putting out house fires. 

The individual and the state both have an obligation to at least do no harm. 

"I think a lot of people are treating this as some kind of unusual interference with liberty," says Francis about pandemic responses. "And my point is, it's actually much more like when people are thinking through some of the most standard kinds of interferences with liberty."

Police investigate a stabbing in Calgary in August. The state often intervenes in cases of public safety, such as homicide, and Prof. Leslie Francis argues that we should view restrictions around COVID-19 in the same light. (Justin Pennell/CBC)

Yet despite the ethical obligations to protect citizens, the decision to impose restrictions across a society is no small thing.

Some see the equivocation and delay in implementing more restrictions as cruel, a view that the economy is on par with the sanctity of human life, or the freedom of one person to walk down the street without fear of their life is equivalent to the freedom to walk maskless. 

Certainly the belief that Alberta's political culture does not allow for things like a lockdown plays a role in politicians' decisions.

But governments also have to consider how their decisions might affect the broader society. They have to consider that lives and livelihoods can and are lost on the basis of a tanking economy, a shuttered business, indecision, action and inaction. 

And not every individual can simply choose to stay home and away from others. Many calling for a sharp lockdown have salaries and/or home offices and the security to stay isolated without much impact. 

Race, class and gender mix and mingle to create a whole set of ethical and moral traps many can't escape. Survival, for many, is just as much about droplets in the air as it is dollars in the bank and food on their children's plate. 

"There has to also be an economic solution for those whose lives are going to be torn apart by this," Melissa Caouette, a political strategist with the Canadian Strategy Group, said on the CBC's West of Centre podcast

And yet, as cases and hospitalizations rise, there comes a point when the political calculation is no longer relevant and protecting the health, not only of Albertans but the entire health-care system, becomes a priority.

Each and every decision can have a profound impact on Albertans. The hesitance of the government to shut things down as the pandemic spreads out of control, however, should come as no surprise. 

The Alberta government

Wesley, from the U of A, says he has no time for people who say they're surprised the United Conservative Party government is taking a personal responsibility approach to the pandemic. 

"This government is refreshingly transparent and completely doctrinaire when it comes to all elements of public policy," he says. 

"So if you want to know where this government was heading, you need to look no further than the 2018 UCP statement of principles."

Wesley calls it Neoliberalism 101 — a political philosophy that makes no room for collective action problems. 

"From a political science standpoint, that's almost like the ideal of what we expect of responsible party actors, is that they have a set of principles, we know what they stand for, they're being transparent about it," he says. 

"And we know when they're confronted with things that are out of the ordinary, are not part of their policy platform, we know how they're going to react."

In short, they'll react like Joe Alberta would want them to.

That policy consistency is tied directly to the founding leader of the UCP, Kenney. 

A man in a dark suit speaks in front of microphones.
Premier Jason Kenney, shown in 2019, has long been a principled conservative to some, an ideologue to others, who tends to stake his position and stick to it.  (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

He has long been a principled conservative to some, an ideologue to others, who tends to stake his position and stick to it. 

It doesn't help that he was elected on a commitment to get the economy back on track and the budget balanced — a near impossibility given spending on COVID responses and the languishing price of oil. 

The focus is, and has been, on trying to preserve and repair an economy that has been battered in every which way. Kenney wants to avoid more business closures and loss of jobs. He does not want to spend more money.

There's also a documented combativeness to Kenney and his government that has seen no signs of abating during the pandemic, including its battles with doctors, nurses and public servants. 

The ensuing division inhibits any chance of a collective action response that could be effective against the pandemic. 

It seems like the government has no intention of shifting gears and abandoning its ideological mores until, as Wesley calls them, a substantial "accumulation of anomalies" attacks the very tenets of that foundation.

It seems individuals, or enough of them, have the same intention.

With more cases, more deaths, fewer ICU beds and more calls for someone to do something as the government resists, the recipe is ripe for blaming the government no matter the culprit in our collective failures. 

Laying blame

Every catastrophe eventually leads to the need for answers and, often, blame. Who is responsible? Who or what could have prevented this? 

Things are clearly getting out of control in the province, with contact tracers overwhelmed and community spread of the virus in full bloom. Recent restrictions on fitness classes and earlier last calls at bars and restaurants have had no impact to date as new case counts of more than 1,000 per day become the norm. 

For a while, it appeared things were under control and as cases rose, people either didn't notice or they held back their criticism. There was the odd call for the government to do more, but it never reached a crescendo. 

Then doctors started writing letters with hundreds of their colleagues' signatures calling for circuit-breaker lockdowns. The chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency called for the same. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi wished for more, but told citizens not to wait for the province to do what was needed. Social media was flooded with calls for restrictions.

Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Tom Sampson is among the Albertans who have called on the Alberta government to impose more restrictions to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 infections. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Cases soared, as did hospitalizations. There are more deaths and likely many more to come.

The government continued to resist, but looks prepared to act — in some way — on Tuesday afternoon.

Critics have said the government has failed to provide clarity across the province on what is expected and even failed to model the baselines of good behaviour. 

Research has shown that people tend to lay more blame when an intentional harm has occurred, but people will look deeply at the agent they wish to blame and try to determine whether they should have prevented the negative outcome and had the power to do so. 

Those in power are judged harshly, even if causality is ambiguous or indirect. 

Polls have shown that Albertans are dissatisfied with the performance of their government. 

A recent poll by ThinkHQ showed the majority of Albertans don't think recent government restrictions went far enough. 

But it can't all be put at the feet of the government. No one told you to celebrate your birthday with friends and family. There was no public health recommendation to drink until you shut down the bar on Saturday night.

Frustration, however, is mounting. So too is evidence that something more drastic needs to take place in order to get the pandemic under control in the province.

"I say that it's never too late to do something that's useful," says Saxinger, the infectious disease specialist from the U of A. 

"But earlier action is very clearly, and in a very data-driven way, the best way to handle something that has exponential growth — acting before it becomes a problem, because you act after it becomes a problem and you're already on your way to a much, much bigger problem."

What is happening

On Nov. 20, Alberta announced 1,155 new confirmed cases of COVID-19. On Nov. 21, it was 1,339. On Nov. 22, it was 1,574. On Nov. 23, it was 1,549, giving Alberta the highest number of active cases out of all the provinces (and not just per capita). 

Hinshaw has said the system is nearing its capacity when it comes to ICU beds set aside for the pandemic, but that more resources could be freed up. Those resources would come at a cost to those seeking treatment for other injuries and ailments. 

Decisions will soon have to be made within hospitals about who has the best chance of survival and, therefore, gets a bed and treatment. 

Some of the dire predictions that were elaborately presented in Alberta's first wave are coming into focus.

On Monday, Hinshaw admitted defeat in terms of the government's already limited contact tracing and, in an attempt to catch up, was giving up on contacting thousands of those linked to high-priority settings such as hospitals, schools and continuing care homes. 

She also said she'd be making recommendations to a cabinet huddle after her announcement and would recommend new measures. The government response is expected to be announced Tuesday afternoon. 

Francis, speaking from Utah and without any knowledge of the specific situation in Alberta, says the way to minimize the impact on businesses while protecting the health of the public is to act swiftly and comprehensively if restrictions are imposed. 

"One wishes that business closures were very short-lived," she says. 

"Unfortunately, we've made some mistakes, we've done it half-way and so we've let community spread really get out of control. And the way to manage it is, you know, you don't treat a rapidly growing tumour by cutting out 20 per cent of it. And unfortunately, a sort of tepid approach to infection control has done exactly that."

An individual, or collection thereof, likely doesn't have the skill for that kind of surgery. The incisions, delayed, will only have to go deeper.


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.