Rudyard Griffiths: The pandemic is tearing up our social contract

It's easy to detect a new, harsher tone seeping into the national dialogue as the third wave gathers momentum
People take part in a demonstration in Montreal opposing the Quebec government's measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

At the core of every society is a contract between the governed and the governing.

The essence of the contract is a bargain between the two groups. On the part of the governed, it is a willingness to give to the governing group the resources — human, economic, cultural — that they require to lead and shape the society as a whole. In turn, the governing group is expected to provide the requisite security and prosperity that encourages human flourishing in its broadest sense.

What distinguishes one social contract from another is the balance both groups strike between risks versus rewards of their system. Some societies have higher tolerance for risk individually and collectively, assuming this will lead to greater rewards, personally and as a group. Others calibrate their laws, regulations and mores to mitigate individual and shared risks. Their assumption is that while this may lessen the dynamism of their society, it is worth forgoing some gains in turn for more stability, predictability and hopefully, steady, incremental growth.

When we look around the world today it is easy to group nations according to where they land on the risk versus reward calculation embedded in their social contracts. America is the quintessential example of a country whose social contract is based on a higher tolerance of personal and collective risk. This tendency has created remarkable growth, power and prominence for the U.S. while exposing it economically, culturally and geopolitically to turmoil, inequality and uncertainty.

Canada is indicative of polities that chose to strike a different balance in their social contracts. Here the preference is for risk mitigation over dynamism as the governed look to the governing for what our constitution masterfully summarizes as “peace, order and good government.” We have chosen to forgo exploring some of our full potential individually and collectively to instead privilege moderation, equality and incrementalism in our politics and society.

These social contracts and the assumptions embedded within them are incredibly enduring and powerful. They are the mythos of modern societies encapsulating our founding, our evolution, and the futures we contemplate together. Because of their centrality, we believe they are inviolate, enduring, unchangeable.

Or at least I thought so, until COVID came along.

The sorry litany of botched policies and outright incompetence matters acutely for a country whose social contract is about good government.

There is a fascinating, possibly profound, reassessment of social contracts underway right now because of COVID, especially in Canada.

When the pandemic emerged last year, it represented a once-in-a-generation test of the social contract. Our initial response conformed to our longstanding propensity to control collective risks by curtailing personal freedom and expanding the role of the state; a kind of POGG on steroids.

And for the pandemic’s first wave, this approach worked. Canada saw lower per capita infections and deaths than many peer nations and enjoyed a broad social consensus about how to limit the virus’ spread.

But flash forward to a year after the arrival of the pandemic’s first wave and Canadians find themselves in a very different place. As a third wave breaks over the country leaving death and misery in its wake, it is becoming starkly evident that we have failed just about every major public health test of the pandemic. We have come up short everywhere from timely vaccine procurement to mass rapid testing and contact tracing to protecting long term care homes to keeping schools and business open to effective border controls to efficient mass inoculations to surging ICU capacity. We also, to our enduring shame, subjected some of our most vulnerable communities to the full brunt of virus forcing them to bear disproportionally the human costs of sustaining a locked-down Canada.

This sorry litany of missed opportunities, botched policies and outright incompetence matters acutely for a country whose social contract, at is core, is about the governing delivering “good government” to the governed.

One can already detect a new, harsher, almost incredulous tone seeping into the national dialogue as the variant-fueled third wave gathers momentum.

Supporters gather as a fence is put up around GraceLife Church near Edmonton. The church has been charged with refusing to follow Covid-19 health rules. Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

As the demonstrations in Montreal yesterday reflect, more and more Canadians are questioning why they should settle for less freedom, less opportunity, more collectivism when they are demonstrably not being protected by the state from this once-in-a-generation risk? Just what did each of us get for trading away our personal liberties for collective security? Certainly not protection from the virus nor its containment. Meanwhile the Canadian state, despite its serial failure, has blithely assumed truly awesome pandemic powers over the economy, individual rights, business, family life, etc.

This skepticism is made worse by what we are seeing right now in countries with social contracts that put greater emphasis on individual and collective risk.

Americans struggled, precisely because of a social contract based on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to contain the early spread of the virus and as a result suffered horribly. But what a difference a year makes. Their private sector ended up producing some of the world’s most effective vaccines. They were distributed, as expected, haphazardly, but on a truly massive scale blunting the pernicious effects of the third wave. They have mass rapid testing, schools and business fully reopening, and some states are enjoying today a return to a way of life that resembles America before COVID.

The striking object lesson here is that an openness to risk taking, a bias against state control, a social contract weighted towards individualism, ultimately ended up being a very effective risk mitigation strategy when confronted with a complex and evolving threat like COVID.

Where does all this leave Canada and our social contract? The Ottawa consensus seems to be the best way to salvage the credibility gap between what the governing promised and the pandemic failures they delivered is to increase the scope of government. Basically, a doubling down on POGG and the promise that next time, with more powers and prerogatives, the state will, in fact, deliver.

Politically, this may work. The upcoming federal election will be a critical test of the “more government” hypothesis. Again, the currents of history and shared experience that underpin social contracts run deep. They are exceedingly hard to disrupt.

Equally though, it is impossible to deny the pandemic has planted in the minds of many Canadians, myself included, an uncomfortable and unavoidable seed of doubt about the current terms of our social contract.

At a moment when we most needed “good government” our state and its political leaders failed in profound ways costing us thousands of lives and sowing a tremendous amount of uncertainty, confusion and fear.

This will not be soon forgotten. And it may encourage some of us to start contemplating a different calibration of the social contract. One that could give us greater scope for personal freedoms and opportunity while fostering a national robustness capable of meeting the next great test of the social contract which we will undoubtedly face.

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