National Post (National Edition)

What I've learned from the pandemic

- MICHAEL SMART Financial Post Michael Smart teaches economics at the University of Toronto and is co-director of Financesof­



2020 Hindsight: We asked several regular contributo­rs to write about 2020. Not to review our annus horribilis — most of us hope to forget it as quickly as possible — but to tell us what particular­ly struck them about it, whether in policy, politics, arts, culture or life as they and we all lived it. Today: Michael Smart and Richard C. Owens.

We've learned a lot of hard lessons in this pandemic. But here's an easy one. Our society cannot function without public goods, nor a capable government that helps to provide them.

For most things people value, competitiv­e markets do a good job deciding who gets what, without government regulation. Consumers compare benefits against costs and choose how much they want. But that can't work for things that we consume collective­ly in society, like law and order, parks, or national defence. The same is true of public health programs, like infectious disease control and prevention.

Since Adam Smith and before, economists have understood that individual­s acting independen­tly will not necessaril­y make the right decisions about things we consume collective­ly, because the choices of one individual affect the happiness of many others. In these cases, we may well need government­s to make decisions and set rules, as well as social norms among citizens that help enforce those rules.

Take social distancing during the pandemic. We all have an interest in reducing social contacts and wearing masks while in public because it reduces our own risk of contractin­g novel coronaviru­s. But social distancing has collective benefits, too. If we're shedding the virus, then we could be infecting others without knowing it. Most of us understand that restrictin­g our movements helps beat the virus and benefits others. But it's only human nature to think too little about others when making our own decisions.

People playing pickup basketball in your local park or hosting a wedding reception in defiance of rules are not irrational. They may have weighed the risks of infection for themselves and decided to accept them. But their choices create costs for the rest of us that they may not be considerin­g sufficient­ly. So we need our government­s to mandate social distancing, and to ensure we all play by those rules.

The evidence is that social distancing works. In

North America and around the world, jurisdicti­ons that imposed restrictio­ns earlier saw new cases of the virus grow more slowly. It's not enough for government to mandate social distancing, however: people have to abide by the rules if they are to work. Canadians value their freedoms too highly to accept enforcemen­t by the state inside their homes and intimate social circles. So, effective social distancing requires us to police each other — in polite, friendly, Canadian ways — in our day-today lives. That requires another key public good: social capital. Social capital means the networks of people and institutio­ns we live among, and the social norms that come out of them. When we trust and learn from one another, the rules work, and society prospers.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada's social capital has been tested. In a Statistics Canada online survey in September, significan­tly fewer respondent­s in Quebec and the Prairies said they abided by social distancing rules, compared with the rest of the country. The problem goes beyond a few anti-mask protesters in the streets. As more people disregard rules, the social norms enforcing the rules start to break down. To coin a phrase, non-compliance is a virus, too.

The problem is lack of trust. A substantia­l minority of Canadians don't believe the novel coronaviru­s is a serious threat to their health, and they don't trust the government to solve the problem or their neighbours to abide by social distancing rules. Those sentiments are especially common in provinces that have become hot spots for the virus. A survey last summer showed Albertans' trust in social distancing rules was the lowest in the country. And if we don't trust others to follow the rules, that can make it easier to ignore them ourselves.

Misinforma­tion doubtless plays a role in these patterns, as well as trust. By convention­al measures, Albertans have strong social networks and engagement with their communitie­s. But they are less avid consumers of traditiona­l news media than other Canadians. And those relying on social media for news are more prone to misinforma­tion, as well as less confident in their sources about the pandemic.

The need for social capital will not end when the vaccine arrives. In one survey this fall, only 75 per cent of respondent­s indicated they were likely to get the vaccine. That vaccinatio­n rate might be sufficient to stop the epidemic through “herd immunity,” but outbreaks would still occur in certain communitie­s, and lives would be lost.

Here again, the problem is trust and informatio­n. Government­s will need to do a better job of communicat­ion than they have so far, if they are to convince a recalcitra­nt minority they can trust the vaccines. Our lives and our livelihood­s depend on it.

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