Why can't politicians just tell us the truth?

John Robson on COVID-19: Why can’t politicians just tell us the truth?

Now that various jurisdictions are wrestling with unlocking the economy, we need to take off the bubble wrap. Especially from our minds. There is no perfect solution and seeking one is dangerous, here as everywhere.

There are better and worse ways to minimize the harm. (For instance do not inject disinfectant.) But there is no way to eliminate it. And even “minimize” is a relative term.

Pandemics are bad, a word here meaning “there is no course of action that won’t leave us significantly worse off than if it had not happened.” And if we get everything exactly right in lifting the lockdown, from medical restrictions imposed on any activity to sequence of reopening everything from parks to pizzerias, the result will be … mass unemployment, shattered government finances and a huge second wave.

Concern about size, shape and timing are legitimate. But it’s coming. It’s how diseases work. It happens with the flu and with the Black Death. It happens with every contagious or infectious disease.

Justin Trudeau wearing a suit and tie: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on April 27, 2020.

© Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on April 27, 2020. When it comes, it will cause economic as well as medical harm, because it’s bad when people get sick. It’s bad if they recover completely, worse if they don’t and worse still if they die. It’s bad for them, friends and family, employers and customers. But so are shattered finances and mass unemployment.

Obvious? Yet it’s mostly still disregarded in practice. If you could pin the PM down he might admit there’s no pain-free solution to COVID-19. But you can’t. Instead he and other politicians exude compassion while emphasizing the benefits of what they’re doing and dismissing the costs. And the reverse when they reject some course of action.

a train is parked on the side of a building: A mobile hospital is set up in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross at the Jacques Lemaire Arena to help care for patients with COVID-19 from long-term centres in Montreal, on April 26, 2020.

© Christinne Muschi/Reuters A mobile hospital is set up in partnership with the Canadian Red Cross at the Jacques Lemaire Arena to help care for patients with COVID-19 from long-term centres in Montreal, on April 26, 2020.

Thus Texas Gov. Greg Abbott justifies lifting restrictions because “That executive order has done its job to slow the growth of COVID-19.” All gain, no pain, on both ends. Now here’s Doug Ford: “Let me be crystal clear: As long as this virus remains a threat to Ontario, we will continue to take every precaution necessary.” Crystal clear. Until you ask “necessary to what?” What’s the goal here?

Frankly, it’s to avoid annoying we the people. We do not often hear issues framed in terms of painful trade-offs and when we do we take our votes elsewhere. Thus, Ontario’s minister of education justified cancelling school through May because “We will never compromise the safety of your child, knowing how important it is to make sure that our youngsters, the most vulnerable in our country, remain safe.”

Protecting the most vulnerable sounds admirable. But recently his boss applied that term to seniors and those with disabilities, while Justin Trudeau bundled up “seniors and young homeless or people without jobs or single-parent families.”

All vulnerable, all the time. But never wounded thanks to their shining performance. Of course nobody wants to seem callous. Not even me. But whoever protects everything protects nothing. Unless we believe you can protect everything at nobody’s expense. In which case there’s no danger in depriving children of social contacts while loading supervising home schooling onto their already overburdened parents. And no benefit to following the lead of Taiwan or Sweden where primary schools are open.

I realize politicians spooked by initially reacting too slowly are terrified of getting tagged for easing restrictions too quickly and killing people. But if a successful quarantine squelches the curve, few people acquire immunity so the second wave is huge and steep and you gained nothing. You don’t even avoid overwhelming hospitals; it just happens later, and more people have other problems worsened by delayed treatment during the first wave. And what if another crisis hits while we’re already reeling from this one and our response to it? Including a different pandemic.

I hope it won’t. It’s not a good time. But being unprepared because we decided bad stuff can’t happen would be fatal as well as fatuous. Been there, done that.

So I’d like to offer the authorities a deal. You tell us the truth and we promise not to tar and feather you for it.

It sounds crazy, I know. But it just might work. Across the board. From now on let’s admit that in government, as in life, every choice has advantages and disadvantages, reject the snake oil salespersons who insist that their elixir will cure everything from arthritis to interest payments, and weigh soberly the costs and benefits of deficits versus program cuts and so on, just as we ponder calories before ordering dessert.

Enough with the fairy tales, including that you can be anything you want to be. You almost certainly can’t play professional baseball, become a grandmaster or cure the common cold. And you can’t live forever, be disease-proof or roll in cash for life no matter who you elect.

When a plague hits, it hits hard. Especially through bubble wrap.

  • COVID-19: Canada could reach 66,835 cases by May 5, with 3,883 deaths
  • Premier François Legault announces his plan to re-start the economy
  • COVID-19: B.C.’s plan to reopen public rec centres and start summer camps

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