Politics·Analysis

COVID-19 isn't just testing governments, it's testing citizens

The COVID-19 pandemic is a type of threat governments seldom face — one that can't be fought solely with the usual tools of public policy. For Canada's coronavirus response plan to work, Canadians themselves have to take part.

What do we owe each other as Canadians? And how many of us are willing to pay that debt?

Empty shelves are seen at a Superstore grocery store in Richmond, B.C., on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. The economic impacts of COVID-19 are at a scale not experienced in modern times. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Appearing in front of Rideau Cottage on Tuesday, Justin Trudeau offered another update on the latest actions the federal government is taking to assist Canadians. He also spent a significant portion of his remarks stressing what Canadians themselves can do — emphasizing an appeal that has been central to the government's message since the beginning of this crisis.

"Right now we must all work together," the prime minister said. "The bottom line is this. Each one of us can make choices that help the people around us. In fact we can make choices that will save lives. If we act now — even if it seems like a big ask — things will be better tomorrow."

On any normal day, government does not demand much of citizens. But the coronavirus is bringing calls for a new era of active citizenship, social solidarity and personal and shared responsibility.

Canadian citizenship is not entirely without responsibilities. Citizens are expected to pay their taxes, follow the law and respect the rights of their fellow Canadians.

But beyond the expectation that we'll adhere to those basic parameters, governments don't ask or demand much of us. Actual calls for sacrifice are rare.

Representative democracy delegates most of the responsibility for studying and deciding on public policy to MPs and government ministers. Public sentiment does affect those decisions, but it's widely accepted that most people are too busy with their own direct responsibilities (family, work, personal health) to pay close attention to what's happening in and around Parliament.

We hope that people will vote every few years, but there is no penalty for failing to do so, and elections will have results regardless of how many or how few people cast ballots.

Canadians are not otherwise docile. We donate to charities and contribute to community organizations, churches and schools. But even our wars are now fought without calls for broad contributions or personal sacrifice.

Mobilizing the homefront

Think of the fierce debate around carbon taxes — where even the promise of full rebates is not enough to silence critics who condemn the notion that anyone should pay more to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

The two world wars of the 20th century might offer the nearest point of comparison for what is being asked or demanded of Canadians now — not only because there was conscription for military service, but because the homefront experienced rationing and calls to do the patriotic thing by carpooling to save fuel ("When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler" read one poster of the time). Canadians were even asked to refrain from gossip.

The social changes brought on by the coronavirus are already extraordinary and the government is now speaking to Canadians in wholly unfamiliar ways.

A Tim Hortons with its dining area closed is seen in Montreal on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Schools are closed, restaurants and other businesses have shut down or curtailed service, large public gatherings are effectively banned. Canadians are being asked to stay home as much as possible and to refrain from hoarding things like toilet paper — and the prime minister is regularly reminding people how to practice proper hygiene.

"I know people would probably prefer to just carry on as normal. I would too. But we all must take all actions through social distancing to protect our health and the health of others," Trudeau said on Tuesday. "As much as possible, stay home. Don't go out unless you absolutely have to.  Work remotely if you can. Let the kids run around a bit in the house."

This is surely the first time a prime minister has offered official comment on whether our kids should be allowed to run in the house.

But the underlying point is serious: by taking personal responsibility, we can protect not just ourselves but each other. Here is an answer to the question of what we owe each other. If each of us does our part, we will all be better off.

A shared responsibility

On an individual level, the government is still asking citizens to take action, not compelling them. That likely reflects how hard it would be to directly enforce social distancing. But it also puts an even greater focus on the personal and shared responsibility that citizens must exercise.

That ethos of active citizenship and social solidarity could also extend beyond what the government is specifically asking citizens to do right now.

Ezra Klein, the American journalist and author, observed this week that there is a significant gap in knowledge between those who closely follow the conversation on Twitter and those who are not tethered to the news cycle. "If you're tweeting a lot about #FlattenTheCurve," he wrote, "make sure you're also emailing or calling the people in your life to convince them to take precautions."

In the moments this past weekend when it wasn't clear that the latest advice to self-isolate was being conveyed to air travellers arriving in Canada from other countries, informed citizens might, for instance, have decided they had some responsibility to spread the appropriate information to their friends and family, in hopes that it would be shared as widely as possible.

In asking citizens to actively take part in the fight against the coronavirus, the government is no doubt motivated by a desire to reduce the burden on official health care services. But the goal of flattening the curve is, at least in part, a test of citizenship and social cohesion — it's not solely a test of governments and authorities.

The flip side of governments asking citizens to make sacrifices and take responsibility is the promise that governments will provide not only health care and protection, but also support for the people who can't work and the businesses that can't operate. The Trudeau government may announce new measures on that today.

If the threat of the coronavirus produces a new spirit of citizenship and solidarity, political leaders might hope to harness similar feelings to fight the threat of climate change.

But the greater challenge in this moment might be sustaining that sense of shared responsibility and sacrifice. It's heartening that our trust in institutions has actually increased in recent weeks. But it's unlikely that this will all be over in the next few weeks.

"We don't know exactly how long this is going to take, whether it will take weeks or months," Trudeau said on Tuesday. "But we know that every step of the way we will be there to support each other. That's what Canadians do."

We are all in this together. But we might be in it together for quite a while to come.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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