National Post, Jan. 8, 2022
“I am raising questions regarding the extent and the effectiveness of this government intervention.”
In recent days, the government of Québec has had to backtrack on some of the measures it had announced in its campaign against COVID. For instance, after insisting for weeks that people who think they may be infected get tested, Québec announced on Tuesday that PCR tests would from now on only be available for specific groups, among them health-care workers.
Those changes have led to very critical comments in the press. Star columnist Patrick Lagacé, in La Presse, wondered if there was a pilot on the plane. A headline in the Journal de Montréal asserted: “Quebec is playing with our nerves.” There is a sense, increasingly shared, that the provincial government has lost control of the pandemic.
While all this is happening, I am reading Why Liberalism Works, by distinguished American economist Deirdre Nansen Mccloskey. Quote: “A complicated economy far exceeds the ability of even a government-sized collection of human intellects to govern it in detail. … Governing in great detail from the capital the trillions of plans shifting daily by the nearly 330 million individuals in the American economy is a fool’s errand …”
I wonder if the same applies to the unprecedented attempts by governments, in Canada and elsewhere, to control their citizens’ private lives in the hopes of containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Isn’t there a point where such attempts are so fastidious, arbitrary and rights-infringing that they become futile, counterproductive even? More importantly, if we accept this extent of state intervention in our private lives now, what will prevent governments from doing it again to contain another crisis, real or apprehended? What if this becomes the new normal?
I am not advocating that governments lift all the restrictions that have been put in place since the beginning of the pandemic. Contrary to Ms. Mccloskey, I have always been convinced, and I think that history bears that out, that there are things that only a government can do; dealing with a public health emergency is one of them.
However, I am raising questions regarding the extent and the effectiveness of this government intervention. There are those who think such questions should not be raised, for fear of hampering the fight against COVID. I disagree. Discussion of such issues is essential, in a democratic society, if we are to draw the line between proper and excessive government intervention in our lives. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859: “There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism.”
As regards the government of Québec, maybe it has not “lost control” because it is incompetent, as many believe. Maybe it has lost control because, as Mccloskey implies, there are simply too many things to “govern in detail.” In other words, this is mission impossible.
In the fight against COVID, governments have relied on statistics: number of cases, number of hospitalizations, number of patients in ICUS, number of deaths. People believed that those numbers were rigorously compiled, and therefore that governments based their liberty-infringing measures on science. Omicron has now lifted the veil on a different reality: the number of cases is no longer a reliable indicator, if it ever was, because many people cannot get tested.
Neither are hospitalizations a good indicator, for it has been confirmed that a significant number of patients counted as “COVID” were not hospitalized for the virus, but tested positive after their admission for another ailment. It has now become clear that many of the restrictions were based not only on science, but on a mix of speculation, guesswork and politics.
A public health-care system such as what exists in Canada has many advantages and Canadians are rightly proud of Tommy Douglas’s legacy. However, there are also drawbacks, since the government monopoly prevents private initiative from finding new solutions to the capacity problems that currently hamper testing and treatment across the country. It is not only ideology; governments are paralyzed by the fear of losing control of the system, even though in fact, they are unable to manage it efficiently.
If COVID-19 is to stay among us for years to come, we cannot allow governments to interfere with our basic rights forever, to submit our society to those ruinous stop-and-go exercises, to try to control our lives up to minute details. At some point, we will have to learn to live with the virus. This means that governments will need to rely less on restrictive measures and more on peoples’ discernment. This also means that each of us shall act as a responsible citizen, as is required in a liberal democracy.
AT SOME POINT, WE WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LIVE WITH THE VIRUS.
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