National Post (National Edition)

Big government flounders on containing virus

No compelling evidence tough approach works

- CARSON JEREMA National Post­ma

When Calgary police with their tasers drawn arrested a 21-year-old man after he refused to leave a skating rink and give his name recently, it was just the latest example of how ridiculous some pandemic measures can be.

Far from showing the value of an expansive state, the pandemic keeps demonstrat­ing how inept big government can be. It is not the fault of police when a silly rule, such as Alberta's ban on outdoor gatherings, is enforced. Politician­s are to blame for making the silly rules in the first place.

Whether it is a Winnipeg church fined thousands of dollars for holding services in a parking lot where attendees were in separate cars — with the windows rolled up — or the city of Ottawa facing more severe restrictio­ns because the virus is rampaging through greater Toronto, or a teen fined for playing basketball by himself, it's hard to have confidence in how our leaders are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, the idea that the “state is back” has been celebrated as if we've arrived at the end of history. The Atlantic magazine ran an article in March that carried the headline, “There Are No Libertaria­ns in an Epidemic.” Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick argued that in the years to come the value of big government will “become more apparent to Canadians than ever.”

More recently, when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney suggested restrictio­ns on rights “must be a minimal impairment to achieve a policy goal,” he was quickly denounced. Opposition Leader Rachel Notley accused him of being beholden to “ideology” and “partisan leanings.”

And yet, in the spring when Canadians were asked to stay home they largely complied, deciding for themselves that going out was risky. There was no need for coercive “shelter in place” orders seen in some American states.

Early success against the pandemic was in spite of big government not because of it. In addition to often arbitrary restrictio­ns on people when out of their homes, there were early misfires on masking advice, an aversion to approving rapid testing and inconsiste­nt travel bans. Worst of all there was an utter failure to protect people in actual high-risk settings, namely long-term care homes where so many have died and large industrial work places like the Cargill meat packing plant south of Calgary, site of the largest outbreak in Canada.

Shutting down so called non-essential businesses, large indoor events and, most damagingly, schools, may have shocked people into staying home, but that is a costly way to send a message, when in fact the spreading virus sends a message all its own.

Economists have found evidence that suggests the economic downturn may be caused by fear of getting sick rather than lockdowns, or at least lockdowns alone.

A November working paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research compared people's economic transactio­ns in different municipali­ties in the Netherland­s, useful because of a nationwide lockdown in that country during the spring. What the authors found is that jurisdicti­ons “that have seen a large COVID-19 outbreak have struggled more in economic terms than municipali­ties that (have) seen few or no COVID-19 cases.” How often people went to the grocery store depended on the prevalence of the virus “indicating that people are more afraid to go outside when there is (a) larger virus outbreak in their local area.”

Government policy may not have been the driver of the recession, but that also means those same policies may not have been as successful in containing the virus as originally thought.

At least at first, Alberta's Kenney has been the loudest advocate for a less intrusive approach to the pandemic, reintroduc­ing restrictio­ns in October beginning with voluntary measures before ratcheting them up to some of the strictest in North America when cases kept rising.

While the premier was incorrect when he said that Charter rights are being “suspended,” he wasn't so out of touch to suggest that government­s must avoid more restrictiv­e measures when lesser ones are available.

Constituti­onal lawyer Sujit Choudhry has argued with respect to the pandemic that judges hearing challenges to any of these restrictio­ns must consider “whether the government has chosen the approach that infringes rights only to the extent necessary.”

Where Kenney and other leaders fall down is the fact that there is not enough evidence to show that any of the specific measures currently in place will work. Testing and contact tracing has collapsed, a problem that could have been addressed early on but was not despite ample deficit spending by all levels of government. At its worse, as much as 85 per cent of active cases in Alberta had an unknown origin. Ontario's overwhelme­d labs and large testing backlog this fall are well documented.

Whether it is shutting down restaurant­s, limiting how many people can be in a store or banning gatherings outside, we just don't know if any of it will work. Or if it does, which parts did work and which were unnecessar­y?

Strict rules backed up by force and hefty fines may indeed be what's needed, but government­s have been unable to offer compelling evidence for their approach.

The virus remains undeterred. COVID-19 spread in workplaces has continued with, for example, at least 400 cases in Ontario Amazon warehouses and at least 700 in Walmart stores across the country.

Keeping families from skating outdoors with their neighbours isn't going to stop this.

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