Walking the Walk on Public Health Rules

I am writing this column on Sunday, April 19, which, coincidentally, is also Easter Sunday for Orthodox Christians. Last week, another Easter Sunday, did not feel festive, and nor does this one. My street, as I look out my window, is completely deserted. There are cars in the driveways, but no one is going anywhere. It’s a strange time in Northern Ontario, because people are usually out full force at this time of year, enjoying the warmer days after the long hard winter.

Empty swings, Toronto

Empty swings, Toronto. (Source: Still from CP24 drone footage)

We have not had many cases of COVID-19 here, nor many deaths, but public health officials, medical personnel, and municipal politicians have all been hammering home the same message: don’t go out if you can avoid it, don’t buy groceries more than once a week and only that often if you really must, and, whatever you do, don’t go out to your camps (which is what people in Northern Ontario tend to call those second homes that are, in other places, referred to as cabins, cottages or bungalows).

The Easter weekend is traditionally the time at which many people start to open their camps for the season: not this year. Further to the south, mayors in municipalities in the popular cottage region of Muskoka told cottagers from Toronto that they don’t want to see them coming into the area, even if they bring with them all their groceries, and don’t intend to make any stops in town. The fear is that, if they come, they might get hurt or sick and need medical attention, and, if they do, they might bring the virus into the hospital with them and infect others, or use up scarce medical resources that might be needed if there is an outbreak of COVID-19. Further north, some mayors have gone even further, and asked that, if anyone feels that they must leave their home community and go to a neighboring one, they self-isolate for 14 days upon their return, just as they would have to do if they came home from abroad.

Neither last weekend nor this one feels like a holiday. No one, as I have said, is going anywhere. While it might be possible to go for walks with friends while maintaining a safe physical distance, I don’t see anyone doing this. The few small groups of people I do see out for a stroll are clearly family groupings: mothers with small kids, couples, sometimes both parents with small kids. My workplace is completely shut; no one is supposed to go on campus for any reason, even to walk a dog, although the campus is huge, and has a number of trails through the woods and along the lake. In short, in Sudbury at least, people and institutions seem to be taking our responsibility to protect one another and ourselves very seriously indeed.

 

Against this backdrop of social and physical distancing and all the sacrifices it entails, in a time in which Zoom meetings have replaced “live” ones, in which restaurants are closed and classes have been moved online, and in which travel (including short trips) is being aggressively discouraged, it was truly astonishing these last few weeks to see how many politicians, both here and abroad, have failed to follow their own instructions about physical distancing and travel limits –- instructions the rest of us have been asked to follow as a matter of great urgency, with a failure to follow them punishable by social condemnation and sometimes actual fines.

Trudeau family at Easter

Trudeau family at Easter

Ivanka Trump, reported to be one of her father’s closest advisers on how to handle the COVID crisis, went to New Jersey to celebrate Passover. Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s former chief medical officer, recently had to resign after failing to follow her own rules about not visiting second homes. Here in Canada, Andrew Scheer was criticized for bringing his wife and five children back to Ottawa on a government jet, thereby making it impossible for the other passengers to physical distance. And our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, instead of spending the Easter weekend at home, went to visit his wife and children who were staying at Harrington Lake in Quebec – despite telling the rest of us to stay home, even if that meant (and means) not spending time with family members. He reportedly took a motorcade and a number of people with him, despite telling Canadians:

This weekend is going to be very different. You’ll have to stay home. You’ll have to Skype that big family dinner and the Easter egg hunt… during the long weekend, we will all have to stay at home.

I have heard it suggested that we ought to cut these people some slack, since they have difficult jobs and are working hard to protect us. If there is anything wrong here, morally speaking, surely it is nothing more than personal hypocrisy, something which perhaps tells us something about their characters, but is really none of our business.

I disagree. I think that there is something deeply morally wrong with politicians — who tell us what we need to do to protect ourselves and others and bring this pandemic to an end as quickly as possible — not following their own rules. First, this behavior sets a bad example; second, it may spread the virus; and, third, it has pernicious social and political consequences. I will examine each consequence in turn.

 

First, it is important that those who have power over others, as our politicians do, set good examples for us. If an ethics professor (for instance) lectures her students about the importance of the principle of respect for persons, it matters whether or not she treats those students with respect in the classroom. If she does not, nothing she says about the importance of this principle will matter, and her students will rightly view what she says as empty words.

UK PM Boris Johnson

UK PM Boris Johnson

If a physician tells patients they should cease engaging in certain behaviors, then engages in those behaviors himself, his patients may rightly wonder about the merits of his advice. And if politicians tell us that it is our duty to stay home in order to protect others, but then put their families on aeroplanes or make trips to their cottages to see their families, we can rightly wonder whether they actually believe what they say, and why we should follow their instructions. At a time in which I see single mothers being criticized on Facebook for taking their small children to the grocery store with them, and in which people who are sick are afraid to go to the emergency room in case they catch the virus, I see no reason why we should cut politicians any slack when they break their own rules.

Second, the reason we are being asked to stay at home is so that we don’t spread the virus, either because we are asymptomatic carriers who might unknowingly carry it with us and infect others when we reach our destination, or because we might catch it from someone there and bring it back with us to infect people in our own communities. What happened to Boris Johnson (and even to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau) should make it clear that being in politics does not make you immune to catching or spreading the infection. It is incomprehensible to me why these people think it OK to engage in behavior they have told the rest of us is irresponsible and dangerous.

 

Finally, and very importantly, there are political and social consequences that follow when we, as citizens, are expected to limit our lives in ways that those who impose those limits upon us don’t feel it necessary to impose upon themselves.

Arguably, the most important element in the glue that holds democracies together over time is that citizens trust that their elected officials and leaders are governing in the best interests of all. Whatever else we can say about what is going on in the United States right now, it is pretty clear that many Americans on both sides of the political divide distrust their leaders and their governments. It is hard not to think that this lack of trust spells the beginning of the end for our neighbor if it is not restored.

President Donald J. Trump listens as Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, delivers remarks during a coronavirus (COVID-19) update

President Donald J. Trump listens as Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, delivers remarks during a coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Monday 30 March 2020, in the Rose Garden at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Canadians, by and large, seem to still have much more trust in our leaders and in government institutions and the civil servants who run them than do Americans, and it is this trust, in large part, that has made most of us follow the advice about the need for physical distancing and other measures to combat the virus, even if it has, for many people I know, already cost them their jobs.

Once that trust is lost, it is hard to win back, and politicians need to be aware that their own behaviors, particularly in a time of crisis, need to match their words, or we will both stop believing what they tell us, and begin to feel that there is one set of rules for our rulers and another for the rest of us. If this lock-down continues much longer, or if we will periodically need to lock down again in the future, trust is the only bulwark we have against serious social unrest, especially if the requirements imposed upon us cost us our jobs and everything that follows from that loss.

Again, trust is hard-earned and easily lost: politicians shouldn’t squander it for a trip to a second home, or a weekend with family – especially when they have asked the rest of us to sacrifice those things, and more.

 

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.