Opinion

On COVID restrictions, our governments keep firing up the gaslights and shifting the goalposts

Until public opinion turns sharply against government overreach, we will continue to live in an artificially-prolonged state of emergency, writes privacy lawyer Allan Richarz.

If you give the government an inch on your rights, they will go for the mile every time

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak during a news conference last month in Ottawa. Every infringement on citizens’ privacy, mobility, autonomy and conscience rights has been justified by officials in the name of the infallible technocratic might of “the science,” writes privacy lawyer Allan Richarz. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Allan Richarz, a privacy lawyer in Toronto. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Listen closely and one might be able to discern the unmistakable sounds of our elected and unelected officials frantically firing up the gaslights and moving the goalposts on COVID restrictions and vaccinations. 

It was a precipitous but inevitable shift from "two weeks to flatten the curve" to get the jab or lose your job, and unsurprisingly, there is still more to come. 

Met the provincial vaccination targets? Great; but now it's time for a booster. Ready for the "temporary" vaccine passport system to expire? Sorry, we need to extend it through spring; proving once again that if you give the government an inch on your rights, they will go for the mile every time. 

Less than a year ago, government and public health officials touted vaccination as a panacea to end the pandemic. It's safe, effective and will allow the country to put COVID behind us, we were told. To that end, citizens were encouraged, prodded and eventually threatened to get their shots, with holdouts demonized by politicians at all levels. Yet, in Ontario, even as the province exceeded by weeks its vaccination and case number targets of the government's phased reopening plan, citizens were offered only breadcrumbs in return: moving up Phase 3 reopening by just a few days, with no plans at the time for a complete reopening.  

Goalposts shift again

And now, with new case numbers in Ontario essentially split evenly between the unvaccinated and fully vaccinated and questions about waning vaccine efficacy, the goalposts shift again with the rollout of booster shots elsewhere in the country and calls for expanded eligibility

The COVID-19 vaccinations data website from the Ontario government shows the number of COVID-19 cases Nov. 28 to Dec. 4 broken down by vaccination status. (Government of Ontario)

One does not need to look hard to guess what the next step will be across Canada. In Israel and France, the definition of fully vaccinated was changed to include boosters; those six months out from their second dose, or first booster, are now considered unvaccinated, and their vaccine passport privileges suspended.  

There is, of course, the popular rebuttal that these goalpost shifts are entirely above-board as the "science evolves." But that exposes the flaw inherent in governments' COVID response: for nearly two years, debate and dissent from burdensome COVID restrictions has been short-circuited with demands that citizens "trust the science"; a modern take on debate-defusing exhortations to "support our troops" during the War on Terror. Every infringement on citizens' privacy, mobility, autonomy and conscience rights has been justified by officials in the name of the infallible technocratic might of "the science."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford attends a news conference at the Queens Park legislature in Toronto in April, the same month he apologized to Ontarians and cancelled a number of COVID-19 restrictions after facing intense backlash. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

But when proven wrong – or more importantly, unpopular at the polls – that formerly rock-solid science on which officials acted is simply dismissed out of hand. Policymakers, however, cannot on one hand demand unyielding adherence to science, and then down the road simply hand-wave away their previous demands on the grounds that their knowledge or political fortunes have evolved. 

It is for this precise reason that checks and balances exist in governance: to prevent rule through unaccountable technocratic appeals to authority. Debate and dissent in the age of COVID, however, have become four-letter words

Our public health officials and elected politicians should not at this point expect any benefit of the doubt. Considering that we are still taking our shoes off and binning bottles of water at airport security 20 years after 9/11, that government officials and their unelected mandarins are unwilling to cede their newfound power in an age of COVID should not come as any surprise.  

Indeed, officials have shown they are not above apparent falsehoods to further their aims. Last week, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore justified the immunization of children between the ages of five and 11 by claiming hospitalization and case counts for that age group were increasing. Yet, according to Ontario's own data, there had been zero hospitalizations in that age group in the past two weeks at the time of Moore's statement.

Always another threat

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) once knew, "There will always be a new disease, always the threat of a new pandemic." Accordingly, the number of boosters, or the percentage of fully-vaccinated citizens, needed for a return to normal will always be n+1. Meet one metric, and be met with two more. As the ACLU continues, "If [fear of disease] justifies the suspension of liberties and the institution of an emergency state, then freedom and the rule of law will be permanently suspended." 

Already we see public health officials priming the pump for the next goalpost shift. Even if vaccine uptake is high among five to 11-year-olds, it will still not be good enough. According to Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, toddlers under the age of four will be next to need the shots, claiming with an absolute lack of shame that – unlike all the other times we were promised an end to the pandemic – vaccinating that group will be a "turning point." 

The government, of course, will never walk back its emergency powers of its own volition. And why would they? After two years of fomenting terror and division among the population, they have cultivated a solid base of support that combines the post-9/11 see-something-say-something paranoia of a middle-class yuppie with the unctuous 1980s Moral Majority sense of superiority. 

Until public opinion turns sharply against government overreach, we will continue to live in an artificially prolonged state of emergency, beholden to the whims of bureaucrats and elected officials.


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Clarifications

  • This column has been updated with a screengrab of a graph showing the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario broken down by vaccination status between Nov. 28 and Dec. 4. As part of his argument, the author linked to the Ontario government's COVID-19 vaccinations data website, but that link did not clearly direct readers to the section on number of COVID-19 cases by vaccination status.
    Dec 04, 2021 6:21 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allan Richarz is a privacy lawyer in Toronto.

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