Are we avoiding the talk?
We are desperate for things to return to “normal,” but we also know that “normal” is going to involve more people being exposed to the virus, becoming sick or even dying.
So how do we proceed? How do we react to the various plans of action that governments across Canada are beginning to roll out, knowing that the result may mean more lives lost due to COVID-19?
We may cringe at ham-fisted attempts by US politicians to speak of balancing economic well-being against lives lost. Deep down, however, we all know that they have a point and the time has come for us to engage in a similar discussion.
Do we even know how?
I remember reading a story many years ago: In it, a god comes down to Earth and promises a great transportation network that will connect the entire country and allow it to flourish.
In exchange, however, the god demands that the country annually sacrifice 30,000 of its citizens, many of them very young.
The author explained that the annual death toll on highways in the US was around 30,000 (many being teenagers). Although a tragedy, these lives also represented the cost of maintaining a large transportation network.
That story often comes to mind when I think of politics.
Politics is about trade-offs. Every government decision about spending, taxing or regulating has a cost.
Sometimes it involves lives. More money for healthcare, social services or even access to expensive experimental drugs would certainly mean fewer deaths.
There are more direct examples. I was part of a government that banned cellphones in cars. However, despite warnings from experts about their dangers, hands-free devices were allowed – a trade-off between safety and convenience.
It’s not always about lives.
Limiting greenspace development may be environmentally sound but it can also drive up housing costs as fewer new homes come on-line. Cutting taxes may fuel prosperity but it leaves fewer dollars for needed government services.
The problem is that we never hear politicians speak about trade-offs.
For a policy to gain public acceptance it has to be presented as an easy fix that will create little discomfort for the electorate. Be sure to add that the only reason your opponents won’t embrace the same solution is because they are lazy, incompetent or in the pockets of some disreputable interest group.
Want to fight climate change by shutting down the oil industry? “Don’t worry, laid off workers will get jobs in the new green economy.”
Want to cut taxes without cutting services or raising taxes? “Don’t worry, we will find efficiencies”.
Want to introduce a basic income program? “Don’t worry, it will pay for itself by lower health care and social services costs as well as slightly increasing taxes on bloated corporations.”
This approach isn’t going to work for COVID-19. We can’t avoid discussing the tough trade-offs in terms of public health.
And it’s not just about ending self-isolation. What about what comes after?
There has been a steady stream of columnists, pundits and commentators (myself included) calling for a drastically different post-COVID-19 world – a world with proper seniors’ care; pandemic planning; better pay and benefits for those in precarious employment; and more supports for the poor.
We will also need a world where governments, despite recent mind-boggling deficits, get our public finances under control and make important investments to spur job creation.
Yet, what few acknowledge in outlining their vision of a brave new world is that implementing even a portion of it is going to involve tough choices.
Don’t get me wrong.
I want a cautious approach to reopening the economy. I also want a post-virus world that recognizes our collective responsibility to the most vulnerable.
But no matter how we decide to proceed, we will need to discuss the trade-offs. Our political leaders will need to find the language to explain publicly those extremely tough choices that they face privately on a daily basis.
And we, the public, are going to have to resist the knee-jerk temptation to pile on politicians who present policies as involving difficult choices.
Perhaps that should top the list of post-pandemic changes that we all desire.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Martin Luther University College, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.