COVID-19 is inevitably a political issue


Since the start of the pandemic, we have often heard from those who hold to the simplistic view that facing COVID-19 would be relatively easy if we simply listened to and followed expert advice.

There is some truth to this: Governments should have the best public health advice possible. But in a democracy, where we must hold governments accountable for their actions, it is elected officials, not unelected public health bureaucrats, who must make the tough decisions about the government’s response.

This means that governments ?? responses to the pandemic, like almost everything they do, are political. Politicians have to choose from a range of options which are often all bad, but in different ways. And they must weigh the interests and concerns of different groups when making their decisions.

Lockdown restrictions, for example, may be needed to contain the spread of the virus. But imposing restrictions as soon as possible can have the effect of shutting down more businesses that cannot survive the short-term absence of customers.

These businesses can be kept afloat thanks to government support programs, but this may require spending in deficit, which has other consequences over time. And so on. Any decision will help some groups and hurt others, and politicians must decide among themselves.

The political nature of these decisions helps us understand why governments sometimes make seemingly strange decisions; often there are considerations that the public cannot see. And, sometimes the mask slips off and we can see how really political these decisions really are.

The best example of this from the current pandemic is in Alberta. Throughout the pandemic, Prime Minister Jason Kenney’s UCP government has been particularly slow to impose restrictions when necessary and very quick to lift restrictions and declare victory.

We finally understood why this was happening when the beginnings of a caucus and party rebellion began to take shape against Kenney. As it turned out, the UCP rebels were organizing against Kenney not because of the government’s seemingly ineffective response to the pandemic, but rather because the government’s response was thought to be too harsh!

Kenney was trying to distinguish between a voting public broadly receptive to public health restrictions and a party (and caucus) that is decidedly more skeptical of such measures than the public. His inclination too far removed from his party’s opinion meant that his leadership was threatened.

An evocative illustration of Kenney’s unenviable position came last May when some opponents of government restrictions staged a “No More Lockdowns Rodeo” ?? near Bowden, Alta., where between 4,000 and 5,000 participants openly flouted public health orders.

Kenney condemned the rodeo. But at a subsequent UCP caucus meeting, his own MPs told him the rodeo attendees were part of the party’s rural base, with the implication that the prime minister should likely stop criticizing them. ?? I want a new base, ??? Kenney would have responded.

Here in Manitoba, those voices seem to have been more suppressed. But resistance to government restrictions featured prominently in the recent Progressive Conservative leadership race when a candidate, Ken Lee, openly courted voters hostile to vaccines.

Last week, Tory MP Ron Schuler was removed from his post after long refusing to reveal whether he was in fact vaccinated, arguing he had a right to keep his medical decisions private. In response to his getting the boot, Schuler tweeted ?? Freedom has its price, today I paid for mine, ?? suggesting that he had been shown the door due to a conflict between his views and the government’s response to the pandemic. Stefanson later confirmed this at a press conference.

Regardless of Schuler’s vaccination status, Stefanson was right to remove him from cabinet, as the former minister’s public statements were increasingly out of step with the government’s messages. When asked recently if he thinks Manitobans should be vaccinated, Schuler stressed that people should research vaccines and make the decision that is best for them.

This is in stark contrast to the government’s position that vaccines are safe and Manitobans should be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

In our Westminster system of government, cabinet must speak with one voice, so Schuler’s position as minister had become untenable. And really, Stefanson should have explained explicitly and immediately why Schuler was fired, rather than having us examine the tweets and tea leaves and find out for ourselves.

Schuler will continue to be an MP in a PC caucus with several voices who are seen as skeptical about various aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic, particularly the lockdown restrictions. This is perfectly fine, since any leader should, within reason, be able to tolerate the diversity of thought within the party caucus.

But as Omicron continues to flood Manitoba, one can’t help but wonder what role some elements of the PC caucus have played in shaping the government’s policy response to the pandemic.

Royce Koop is Professor of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba and Academic Director of the Center for Social Science Research and Policy.

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