Janet Bufton: The pandemic shows we expect too much of governments and too little of ourselves

I’ve changed my mind about how much Canadians are willing to give up to help each other
People wear face masks as they wait to enter a store in Montreal, Friday, April 2, 2021. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The saying in early 2020 was that there are no libertarians in a pandemic. 

It’s been a disappointing time to be a libertarian. It’s not that there are no libertarian responses to a public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. But those responses turned out to be unpopular, even where they seemed realistic.

The political right, including many libertarians, embraced the idea that Covid-19 is not a serious enough virus to warrant a serious response. The political left had no time for the idea that there was any role for individual responsibility. And an opportunity for libertarians to contribute meaningfully was squandered. 

Mandates to the left of me, minimizing to the right

Since the beginning of 2020, I’ve changed my mind about how much Canadians are willing to give up to help each other. 

Skeptics of big, active government should acknowledge that there are problems that don’t have individual solutions and need collective action to respond. The Covid-19 pandemic is an excellent example: Even if I have the resources to wear high-quality masks, to stay home when sick, and to test diligently, I depend on other people to do the same. 

But I was unrealistic about how much even people who want society to respond together will do voluntarily to help each other if that help costs them something unless everyone is forced to do it together. As though nothing any of us does on our own matters at all. 

It’s normal and necessary for individual action to support collective action. We have municipal waste collection and municipal workers who clean our streets and parks, but we’re still expected not to litter, and we act as enforcers when we call out people who do. We live in a democracy, so we need to convince others to support policy changes if we want those changes to stick. Sometimes government policy change helps persuade people, but this time it didn’t.

By relying almost completely on mandates, especially in Ontario, we’ve sidestepped important parts of social change that would have supported “living with Covid.” We didn’t update “what’s normal?” or “what’s polite?” We let bylaw officers show up instead. It’s no wonder that masking disappeared so quickly when mandates went out the window.

Almost as troubling was how the attitude of “mandates-only” contributed to politicizing the pandemic. If the only response to a dangerous virus is government mandates, then the stakes of politics become very high. 

On the political Right, we’ve seen a rise in those who deny the severity of the virus as a way of denying their responsibility to do anything about it. I think the belief at the root of this response is the same as the belief that supports mandates: if Covid-19 is a public health threat, then sweeping government mandates are needed to fight it. Those who buy that but don’t want to change their own behaviour have a strong incentive to believe there’s nothing to worry about.

It has been maddening to see those who take up the call of “Freedom!” deny that there’s any problem worth worrying about. There is nothing small-government about the position that when there is not a problem, the government shouldn’t do anything to solve it. The case for libertarianism rests on the belief that hard, important problems need individual action, innovation, and buy-in. Not a belief that we live in a world without hard, important problems.

The polarization of pandemic issues is so severe that we can’t even agree on what “doing something” or “moving on” look like. Wearing a mask, testing a few times, and working remotely when sick but otherwise returning to normal could qualify as either to the right person. The inability to agree makes it harder to be anything but angry at each other. 

Voluntary responses are good, even if they’re not sufficient

What would have been libertarian policy responses to the pandemic? First and foremost—though some might not call it a policy response—is significant voluntary mitigation for the sake of one another and especially for the sake of the most vulnerable. 

It sounds unrealistic now, but the remarkable solidarity shown in the early days of the pandemic suggests that Canadians had the capacity not so long ago to do on our own what is generally considered prudent mitigation now: masking in certain scenarios, testing appropriately, and staying home while sick. We were also willing, not so long ago, to accept that those who can most easily make changes should take on the burden they can for the sake of those with fewer options, whether for socioeconomic or medical reasons. 

Somewhere along the way we flipped the onus. During lockdowns, many who could continue earning an income from home, or whose childcare or education was not disrupted, seemed to many more concerned with implementing the right policy response than about those whose lives were upended. When lockdowns ended, those who had weathered them well felt like they’d done their part, while those who suffered were desperate to return to normal. Today, people with many options are getting “back to normal,” while those who cannot take time off work or for whom the virus is the most dangerous feel left on their own to navigate the continuing pandemic.

If you’re more Covid-cautious, you’ve probably experienced the awkward feeling of asking someone to act differently to match your comfort level. It never became a matter of politeness to ask what someone is comfortable with or to mask or cancel plans even when it’s inconvenient. In a near-universe, it’s a faux pas to wrongly assume someone is as relaxed as you are, and internal feelings of shame help keep everyone safer. Mandates can’t go on forever. But politeness is not only lasting but self-enforcing. 

That near-universe is a more humane one. We’ve expected too much of governments and too little of ourselves.

Second, public health measures should never have been so politicized. It’s easier, when you believe that people can—and more importantly, will—meaningfully respond to a community problem, not to worry about what you imagine will be the implications of a recommendation to public policy

N-95 and similar masks have always been the best option for protecting yourself and others, even when they were in short supply. PCR and molecular testing are important for understanding how many infections are in the community, while at-home rapid testing—a poor way of checking for infection—can help us test for infectiousness and decide what to do. More and ongoing voluntary testing and isolation should always have complemented public health efforts to understand the virus. Air quality, exchange, and filtration matter, probably not only for Covid-19 but for fighting illness generally, even if updating it is expensive. Plexiglas is as useless at stopping Covid-19 from spreading through the air as it is at keeping cigarette smoke in a restaurant’s smoking section, even if we’ve installed it everywhere. 

Today, public health advice doesn’t aim to guide us to make the most informed decisions based on what’s realistic for each of us but presents a single guideline of what’s considered reasonably informed, motivated by government policy. For example, instead of encouraging repeated at-home testing to support individual decision-making, Ontario has shifted away from testing at all and now provides guidance based on symptoms, which are not necessarily tied to infectiousness, because the government changed public testing policies.  

The solidarity that motivated almost all of us to stay home and look out for each other early in the pandemic and the effectiveness of what we’re doing to fight the virus going forward have both been undermined by the polarization of acceptable public health responses. 

Finally, policies fast-tracking the development of vaccines, tests, and therapeutics while still ensuring their safety should have been kept in place and should be the focus at this point. The mRNA vaccines are medical miracles that have saved millions of lives. But they are not sufficient for getting “back to normal.” Keeping people alive and out of hospital is obviously important, but it’s not good enough. Even when Covid isn’t dangerous, it’s often disruptive and miserable. 

We need vaccines that stop not only severe illness but transmission, and we need them as quickly as possible. We need better and more widely available therapeutics that help people feel better and stave off long Covid. And testing should by now be cheaper, more available, and less invasive. That we don’t have these things is a policy choice, not an inevitability. Some people will worry about the speed of development, but many others would be eager to adopt new pharmaceutical responses, providing real-world evidence that they are safe and effective. Voluntary adoption supported by less political public health messaging would help depoliticize vaccines and treatment. 

These are suggestions libertarians should embrace, but they don’t have to be implemented as a libertarian would. They would all support and could be supported by government policy responses. Paid leave would allow more workers to stay home when sick. Government-provided testing could support people testing to return to work, school, or childcare. Public health could shift its focus to messaging on gold-standard behaviour (with variations based on life circumstances) and to the relatively intensive process of reaching people hesitant about vaccines and those who do not have easy access to them. 

And governments don’t only have to get out of the way when it comes to more and better pharmaceutical responses. They could support new drugs and vaccines with research funding or rewards. Operation Warp Speed might have been the only good thing to come from Donald Trump. Compared to lockdowns, crippled hospitals, sickness, and death, it was also the cheaper option. 

All of these changes, both government and voluntary, would support a better pandemic response. Whether or not you believe voluntary action could ever be sufficient, increasing our willingness and ability to rely on it would make our response to public health problems more durable, more robust, and more humane.

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