Balancing Interests When Governing Amid COVID

Balancing Interests When Governing Amid COVID
People walk along a street in Montreal on Feb. 21, 2021. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Lee Harding
News Analysis

Throughout the pandemic, health professionals and advisers have provided crucial service and advice to help manage the pandemic and minimize health risks.

But there have also been criticism of elected politicians—who are expected to have a broader view and enact balanced policies to ensure overall societal well-being—acquiescing political decision-making to experts, who have narrower areas of focus.

For example, for some experts dealing with hospital patients and over-capacity ICUs, a zero-sum approach of removing all social contact may make most sense. But for others seeing an increase in suicides, a worsening opioid crisis, and devastating financial ruin, a different approach that considers other criteria may be more appropriate.

Marco Navarro-Genie, a political scientist and president of the Haultain Research Institute, says elected officials often give in to political calculations at the expense of setting the right policies, thinking they will lose political scores if they don’t listen to vocal advocates.

“On the one hand, they’re saying that the doctors are giving them advice, and that they will follow the advice of the doctors. And the doctors are saying that all they’re doing is providing advice, and the politicians make the decision,” Navarro-Genie said in an interview, adding that politicians shouldn’t be denying responsibility by pointing at doctors.

According to a 2018 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, “The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada supports advocacy as a core competency of medicine,” and “Ontario and Alberta’s regulatory colleges encourage advocacy as an important component of the doctor-patient relationship.”

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says it’s important to remember that an expert in medicine is not necessarily an authority on politics.

“Medical colleges may make activism a core competency of medicine, but that doesn’t mean that those trained in the colleges have political competency or authority,” Wiseman said in an interview.

Public health units, medical associations, and the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table have been among the most vocal groups asking for a provincial paid sick-day program in Ontario, which the premier had earlier resisted but on April 22 reversed course on.

Increased calls for decriminalization of hard drugs for personal use have also come from some in the medical community, including some public health officials. Chief public health officers of several jurisdictions, such as Quebec, Toronto, and Montreal, have called for decriminalization. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has also said that all approaches to dealing with the opioid crisis should be considered, including “moving toward a societal discussion on decriminalization.”

Drug decriminalization is a complex issue with broad implications, crossing into multiple realms of public policy besides just health, such as the judiciary. It also involves deeper cultural and moral questions. The debate has partisan figures on both sides, with different parties taking different positions on the issue. So a health official publicly voicing a view that’s on one side of the debate could be at odds with the position of an elected government that represents the will of the electorate.

William Gairdner, an academic, author, and Epoch Times contributor, says human beings have a tendency to believe that because they are experts in one area, they can also be experts in others, even if they lack the experience.

“They begin to feel that because they have prestige in one field, they have prestige in every field. ... Its a failing of human beings in general to assume that expertise in the one thing implies expertise in another,” Gairdner said in an interview. “Advocacy is everywhere now, and it’s a real fight to get people to stop.”

Wiseman says a balance is found when politicians and officials assume their proper roles.

“Politicians are elected and responsible to their electorates. Scientists and health experts, if appointed, [are] responsible to politicians,” he said.

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