COLUMN: Governments can make a difference in troubled times

From columnist Robert Malcolmson

Robert Malcolmson

By Robert Malcolmson

A few days ago my wife, Patricia, had a conversation with a stranger about COVID-19. She was in a shop in Nelson, and, while paying her bill, the check-out clerk said (her exact words) “I’m proud to be a British Columbian.”

This led me to think about what we expect from government, how we assess its efforts, and how successful these efforts are thought to be.

First, we expect our government to have plans for the future and to make these plans clear to electors. Second, and ideally, these plans, when revealed and implemented, enjoy widespread public support (sometimes they don’t). And third, over time, the plans are, for the most part, judged to be effective.

On all these points the B.C. government has so far been remarkably successful. It has routinely explained the reasons for its policies of restraint and regulation, and public compliance with these “instructions” has been about as close to universal as one can expect in a liberal, individualist democracy.

If one needs evidence in support of this verdict, one only has to seek out comparisons. Shortly after this virus broke out in Washington state, with a sudden surge of infections and deaths, an official from that state said of BC that our health care system would soon be “overwhelmed” too. Of course, it wasn’t. And the death-rate from the virus (adjusted for population) in B.C. is one-fifth that of Washington state, where many new infections are still reported daily.

Comparisons with other U.S. states would make B.C. look even better. Our death rate is about the same as Norway’s, generally seen as one of the world’s best governed nations.

At the very least these facts show that governments really can make a difference, especially in troubled times. Indeed, only governments are able to act in the common interest — though what that interest is can be a matter for debate. Since most of us agree that public health is an important aspect of the common good, citizens have been unusually disposed during this pandemic to defer to authority.

This deference may be harder to sustain some months from now, as weariness with restraints and belt-tightening takes hold of more people, and some are seen (whether accurately or not) as having sacrificed much less than others. Lots of challenges still lie ahead.

Finally, a speculation. It has been noticed that many of the countries that have been most successful in dealing with this health crisis are led by women – New Zealand, Norway, Germany, Taiwan – and that some of the hardest-hit countries are led by crudely ego-driven men (the U.S., the U.K., Brazil). Is this just a fluke? Or is something significant going on?

We know that in B.C. the chief public health officer commands authority, not through bluster and posturing, but by means of her compassionate and measured reasonableness (and her reluctance to claim that she always gets things right).

The year 2020 has reminded us that we depend on government and that we depend on each other. A biological threat has fostered a certain clear-headedness and focus, which, like most of life, are bound to be fragile. But perhaps we can show that consensus has legs.

Robert Malcolmson is professor emeritus of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. He now lives in Nelson.

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