On Monday, as documented cases continued to grow, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would be closing the Canadian borders — except to US citizens. Throughout the speech, he stressed that the government was basing its decisions on science and public health recommendations. A reporter asked him what scientific recommendations he was basing the decision to keep the US border open on. He replied, “We recognize that the level of integration of our two economies and coordination over the past while puts the U.S. in a separate category from the rest of the world.”
I’m not here to pass judgement on the decision to keep the US border open (and it’s since been closed). But his response illuminates a broader issue.
The only crisis of this scale that humanity has ever faced before is the climate crisis, and it, too, is one we’re utterly failing to address. COVID-19 is proving to be a bit different. The rapid rate of viral spread means governments can’t completely ignore it. But in critical ways, North American and European governments are failing to act, despite having clear paths towards mitigation laid out. Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and China all provide blueprints for a successful strategy. Some of these countries have leveraged authoritarian state power to implement suppression, but others have followed a path that would be acceptable in cultures like ours that hold freedom and privacy at a premium.
In Canada, we’ve had the surreal luxury of watching underwhelming mitigation strategies play out across the world. Italy is weeks ahead of the US. The US is weeks ahead of Canada. Each western country has followed the same path. Start by denying that the virus has a foothold and attempt a containment strategy, asking travellers to self-isolate. Containment, unfortunately, was a ship that sailed globally in January. The number of cases invariably spirals out of perceived control. At this point, they start calling, slowly at first, for business closures, school closures, and more. We’re just getting to that point in Canada. It’s where Italy was weeks ago.
Globally, we’ve seen successful responses to COVID-19 and we’ve seen failed responses. Why does western country after country fail to respond appropriately until it’s too late?
And why, when we have blueprints for mitigating the climate crisis and a clear understanding of its implications, does country after country fail to respond appropriately to that?
The answer to both questions lies in Trudeau’s rationalization on Monday.
We’ve built a world around an ideology that prioritizes economic growth. Human well-being, ecological well-being, and the well-being of future generations are no longer goals of governance. Our social contracts with governments are contingent on indefinite growth, but have no clauses about prosperity, about guaranteeing our ability to thrive. The rationale for this is the belief that human well-being and economic growth are tightly coupled: with one, the other will come.
What we’re learning, through COVID-19, through the climate crisis, and through the global social justice crisis, is that they’re not.
Our response to COVID-19 — though in many ways delayed and inadequate — is showing us that the government can and must act to promote well-being. We’re seeing policies designed to protect the most vulnerable, to help the poor weather hard times, and to ensure justice in the face of disaster. We’re seeing talk of a universal basic income from main-stream and even conservative politicians. We’re seeing government-mandated paid sick leave. We’re seeing non-violent offenders released from prisons. In the only OECD country without universal health coverage, we’re seeing a push for “Medicare for all.” Each of these policies has its own set of pros and cons, but what makes them remarkable is their motivation. To borrow a framing from economist Kate Raworth, they are designed to help people thrive, whether or not the economy grows, rather than to help the economy grow, whether or not its people thrive.
COVID-19 is an on-going fight. We need these policies — and more — to mount a successful response. But when it’s over, whether in a few months or a few years, we need to remember the lessons we’re learning. Why do we have government? So we can work together as a collective to ensure that everyone has what they need. Let COVID-19 mark the beginning of a political revolution that recalibrates the goal of society. Economic growth can be good, but it isn’t inherently good. As we rally through this, remember, we’re in the midst of other crises that are equally as urgent, and the answer is to ensure our global power structures are working for the benefit of all.