How Do We Get Politics and Public Health More Aligned?

How Do We Get Politics and Public Health More Aligned?

Postby Oscar » Thu Mar 03, 2022 4:12 pm

How Do We Get Politics and Public Health More Aligned?

By Jim Harding - February 27, 2022

Many beliefs – in science, in democracy, sometimes in spirituality – are tugging at our hearts and minds during this pandemic.  And scientific investigation that informs public health; and politics, which is shaped by many other influences, are hard to align.

Scientific investigation, too, has majority and minority views, but sometimes these can be integrated into a more complete view. Sometimes a minority view, as an anomaly, can displace the majority one. Sometimes different views remain intact for different conditions.

Politics has serious difficulties seeing a larger truth, especially when dialogue and mutual learning are replaced with rigid, partisan ideologies. Some politicians embrace fractious, fundamentalist ideologies, including religious, that have polarizing outcomes. We see the result of decades of this across the border and this conspiratorial thinking gaining influence here.

Our first-past-the-post system doesn’t help. And some politicians always seem willing to select information out of context to reconfirm opinions and shore up their base. This adds to our fragmentation.

And so we ended up with the feds being pressured through zero-sum, mostly illegal actions, to abandon all public health mandates. As one border protester put it, we just want “our freedom to do what we want to do…”. This seems to include wanting the “freedom” to block public and supply chain traffic.

The risk of illness, death and harmful economic impacts have clearly been inequitable. Precarious workers have not only maintained the supply chains and the healthcare systems but faced more risks of disease. Tragically, the unvaccinated face the most serious risks, while at the same time undercutting healthcare capacity.

And disruptive and illegal protests simply add to social burdens. Far-right groups, however, have used frustrations for their ideological purposes. The continental Christian Right is clearly involved. And some Conservatives, including leadership contender Pierre Poilievre, have used these disruptive protests as wedges for electoral gain. The Liberals are also accused of using vaccines as a political wedge even though our high rate of vaccination has clearly saved lives.

There is lots of room for confusion and despair. The federal Liberals first tried to distance themselves from the Ottawa occupation, saying that in a democracy, policing must be independent. Occupiers said they will stay until the feds lift all mandates, most of which are provincial.

Justin Trudeau was reluctant to use the heavy hand of the law, as his father did during the 1970 War Measures Act. Authorities likely understand that any perceived “police repression” will be used for further protest mobilization. As it turned out, after the Emergency Act, police restraint perhaps has helped create a new norm for policing protests. Certainly there has been a double standard.

Reason and foresight were never front and centre in this national crisis.

Mandates have played their role in achieving our high rate of vaccination, and this is also true in the trucking industry. But public health is now highly politicized, with militant occupiers emboldened by the quick lifting of some provincial restrictions. Saskatchewan Party Premier Moe immediately ended vaccine mandates, whereas, with some other conservative governments, such as Quebec, there is a more cautious, staged phase-out.

Hospitalization and death rates rates are still high. Individual self-regulation is difficult, especially with Premier Moe stopping daily COVID reports, and the vulnerable will be left at added risk. We still know very little about Long COVID.

Contradictions have run amok. Protesters demanded “freedom of choice” that blatantly undermined the freedoms of Ottawa residents. Simply put, this was bullying and intimidation writ large, with trucks. Those blocking borders, supposedly protesting border mandates, which Conservative politicians opportunistically claim will raise grocery prices, were blocking the actual supply chains. Some Conservatives say the Liberals should have negotiated with those wanting to depose the elected government. Can you imagine Stephen Harper ever saying this?

Polarization can grow with public frustration. However, manipulating grievances and stirring up anti-democratic aggression makes things worse. In democracies, solidarity and reason always need to be brought into some balance. In Canada we stand for “peace, order and good government”, not unfettered, anti-social, American-style “liberty”, including the “right” to bear arms, at any cost.

Should we perhaps take a minute to mourn the demise of the Progressive Conservatives?

Democracies need to protect themselves from any use of force that attempts to undermine the rule of law. Policies and laws should only be changed democratically, not by authoritarian decree. And under persisting circumstances, politics and public health need to remain closely aligned.

Certainly, public health measures must be nimble. But it was foolish for the Saskatchewan and Alberta governments to claim the pandemic was subsiding and lift all restrictions last June, before the deadly Delta wave. It is another politicized blunder to claim that we can “live with COVID” by lifting all precautions.

New variants have not been ruled out in our, still mostly, unvaccinated world. And we collectively face a growing number of interlocking challenges:  future pandemics, climate change and the stark inequalities unfolding before our eyes. And now we have Russia invading Ukraine. . With such anxiety and stress, you can see why some people feel that humanity is starting to implode.

It is always a mistake to talk in binary absolutes. And politicizing the pandemic will feed more conflict and confusion. Socially-fragmenting misinformation, conspiracy theories and polarizing identity politics abound. Depolarization to enhance public discourse, to embrace a larger truth, is urgently needed.

Jim Harding was Director of the School of Human Justice at the University of Regina before he retired. He is a Director of the QVEA.
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