We are done with COVID-19 but it is not done with us

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 13, 2020.

Though it now seems easy to forget, we remain locked in a battle with the novel coronavirus. It has been 93 days since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic; a declaration that brought with it unprecedented restrictions on our liberties and to our livelihoods.

That we all willingly obeyed those orders is a notion fundamental to a democratic society: the consent of the citizen to submit to the authority of the government.

But the mass protests of past weeks have shown a fraying of this social contract, Prompted by an angry outcry to a long simmering wrong, the Black Lives Matter movement has caught on where the anti-lockdown movement has fizzled out.

The BLM protests are, as I wrote here last week, justified and long overdue and the anti-quarantine movement was never more than a radical fringe. But the outcome and the dangers, vis-à-vis the coronavirus, are much the same.

While it is dangerous to confuse the real medical risk of these protests with their ideological or political value, we have seen public health authorities trip over themselves to somehow sanction them. They seem suddenly desperate to inoculate themselves against the criticism that it remains irresponsible to gather in large groups, even outdoors, even in a mask.

It was just a month ago that irresponsibility was the charge levelled against those who protested the COVID-19 lockdowns. It was only two weeks ago that health and political authorities alike were condemning youth in Trinity Bellwoods park, going so far as to label them reckless and selfish.

But governments have now run into a brick wall when it comes to public compliance. Terrified of losing their moral authority to govern, their power of moral suasion, the tail is, once again, wagging the dog with public health authorities repeatedly contorting themselves or playing catch-up to shifts of opinion and behaviour among the public.

As the social contract frays, the more pronounced this phenomenon becomes, and the more the authority of government will erode.

Public health authorities can issue endless reminders about best practices but now that every leader from the prime minister on down has participated in a mass gathering, the government’s dissuasive power against gathering in large groups has melted like a popsicle in the summer sun.

This fraying will only get worse, I predict. Whether it is because of the warm weather, general quarantine fatigue after three long months, deteriorating mental or financial health, people are simply ceasing to do what the government asks.

And why should they? It is not as if our leaders have modelled good behaviour. If others are not willing to follow the basic rules of the social contract, it is rather easy to understand those who choose to abandon quarantine to join a growing popular protest movement. After all, condemning untold instances of appalling police brutality seems to many a reasonable and necessary thing to do.

Public health authorities like Dr. Anthony Fauci are, of course, of a different view. Fauci sternly warned this week that the protests are the “perfect setup” for spreading the virus. The challenge for governments is that it will take a couple of weeks to see if he is right. And while we wait, it will be difficult for authorities to convince the public that the risk is real when Toronto public health authorities recently quietly confirmed that we saw no such spike after the gathering in Bellwoods.

And so, it is becoming clear that we have collectively decided that, regardless of what we are told, we are done with COVID-19.

But the virus is not done with us — far from it.

And therein lies the challenge facing those who lead our democracy.

What happens when the people decide they have had enough? What happens when the people decide that they will no longer blindly, unquestioningly accept your instructions? What happens when science and instinct and experience leads you in one direction and the people lead you in another?

Those are questions that will preoccupy our leaders through the doldrums of summer. And their answers will live on much longer in the health of our nation and the political fortunes of their parties.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Twitter: @jaimewatt