Are Canadians ready for sustained sacrifices in the age of COVID-19? We're about to find out

Two world wars taught earlier generations of Canadians the value of sacrificing personal comfort and safety for the lives of others. Now we're being called on to make sacrifices again. Are we ready?

Trudeau says the pandemic's course here depends largely on what Canadians do. How long can we keep this up?

A danger sign is shown next to a playground in Montreal on Sunday. The city has closed playgrounds as it tries to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

It's the stuff our grandparents and great-grandparents talked about — the sacrifices of the war. Rationing, converting factories over from making baby carriages to building bombs. People volunteering their time, sometimes risking their lives, to keep their neighbours safe.

The idea that we're all in this together has not been invoked in this country in such a visceral way since the Second World War. Other eras have involved suffering and sacrifice, of course — but not to the extent where almost the entire country is in lockdown.

The language being used by the Liberal government, the opposition parties and even corporations to describe the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has, on occasion, summoned the ghosts of that long-ago time.

War of a different kind

There's talk of us being at "war" with the novel coronavirus, of "mobilizing" medical equipment manufacturers. We've heard politicians and public health officials plead with Canadians to maintain physical distancing and keep to their homes — through appeals to civic duty.

For the most part, people have listened and are complying. The question facing political and institutional leaders in the coming weeks is whether this sense of national solidarity and sacrifice can be sustained.

During his daily media briefing on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke again about how "very optimistic" he is that "we are going to get through this in the right way, because Canadians do what they need to do to be there for each other" in a time of crisis.

This is unprecedented in human history. We're being asked to shut down everything for a very lengthy period of time. And we won't know until after we're done whether the policy itself had the desired effect.- Historian Mark Humphries

But he wasn't able to say how long the lockdowns and physical distancing measures will last, or how bad this pandemic could get. Will we still be stuck in our homes in two weeks? Two months? The Canadian military is readying itself for up to a year of COVID-19 response operations.

"There are obviously many, many different projections of how long this could last, how serious this could be, how many cases we could be facing. But those projections all hinge on choices that Canadians are making today, choices they made over the past few days, choices they will be making over the coming few days," Trudeau said.

Convincing people to live smaller lives

With the invocation of the Quarantine Act and the threat of fines and jail time for those who do not obey orders to isolate following travel, Trudeau and his ministers have, in some respects, put themselves on a tightrope that no Canadian government has had to walk on since the war.

The dilemma of convincing people to stick with a government plan involving personal sacrifice is not unlike the challenges that faced the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, the agency which oversaw price and inflation control, business activity and rationing during the Second World War.

A wartime poster urges Canadians to take part in scrap drives. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc)

Although its reach and powers under the old War Measures Act were much more sweeping than the measures now being deployed against the pandemic, the board grappled with the same fundamental challenge — of cajoling, hectoring and sanctioning people to get them to obey limits on how they lived. And it did so for almost eight years.

One of the lessons learned by the Liberal government of former prime minister MacKenzie King was that it had to be selective in how hard it came down on violators, said Christopher Waddell, a journalism professor at Carleton University who wrote a thesis in the early 1980s about the board.

'Voluntary compliance'

Today, governments are threatening people who don't follow physical distancing or self-isolation measures with fines and jail time. Back then, wartime leaders learned that the authorities can't be everywhere all of the time. 

"You don't have the resources to enforce it. And if you did have the resources to enforce mandatory things, you'd probably be diverting those resources from something that is more important," said Waddell. "Ultimately, you have to rely on voluntary compliance. You have to do as much exhortation as you can."

A lone pedestrian steps off an escalator at a quiet mall in Ottawa, Wednesday March 18, 2020, after stores were closed in response to the virus's spread. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

And when governments do crack down, they run the risk of making a public spectacle of people flouting the law — which ultimately undermines both their credibility and their authority.

The Wartime Prices and Trade Board imposed $1.7 million in fines and threw 253 people in jail for violations. But while the war was raging overseas, said Waddell, news of scofflaws being punished at home was more easy to keep under wraps due to limited media coverage. Things have changed.

"They had a much easier media environment to work in," he said. "There was no social media showing people flouting the rules."

How much? How long?

The fact that people don't know how long the lockdowns will be in place, or what kind of collective and personal sacrifices they'll be called upon to make, renders the current situation even more precarious, said Mark Humphries, a historian at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

"This is unprecedented in human history," he said. "We're being asked to shut down everything for a very lengthy period of time. And the reality is we won't know until after we're done whether the policy itself had the desired effect."

One of the challenges wartime leaders faced was to explain the tradeoff to civilians: the cost of the sacrifices versus the promise of victory. Humphries said that challenge is even greater now because the pandemic brings with it so many intangibles.

"If Canadians are being asked to make significant personal sacrifices, which may well be necessary, I think we also have to have a very good understanding of what we're being asked to do. And we're going to have to understand the degree to which it is likely to have the effect that is hoped," said Humphries, who is also the author of the book The Last Plague, which examined the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

What leaders say and don't say will shape how Canadians respond.

The public needs a better understanding of the plan, Humphries said — particularly when it comes to whether the current lockdown strategy ignores larger ethical, economic, social and cultural questions.

That's a debate that has to happen in public, he said, if the public is to remain fully onside.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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