Delacourt: Are you a good Canadian? Justin Trudeau offers the coronavirus as a lesson in responsible citizenship

Good commentary and yes, a lesson in civic responsibility, one that the PM has had to personally demonstrate given his self-quarantine and cancellation of the FPT meeting given his wife having tested positive:

Ask not what the federal government is doing for you about the COVID-19 pandemic, but ask instead what you are doing to keep Canadians healthy.

Justin Trudeau didn’t exactly borrow from John F. Kennedy’s immortal lines about civic responsibility at his news conference on Wednesday, but the prime minister also, very deliberately, cast the virus crisis as a crash course for all of us in good citizenship.

“Often there are global crises or events when the average citizen does not feel particularly powerful to affect the fate of the economy. We are in a situation where the choices our citizens make will have a direct impact on the health of Canada and on the Canadian economy,” Trudeau said in French toward the end of his morning appearance in the National Press Theatre.

It was billed as a high-level update on what the Canadian government is doing for citizens as the novel coronavirus spreads its damage throughout Canada and the world. “We get it and we’re on it,” Trudeau said.

But slipped into all the talk of government having our backs — another new, favourite phrase from Trudeau’s team this year — was a gentle reminder or two that citizenship is a two-way street. The government is in a giving frame of mind, but a taking one too, in terms of what it’s asking of average Canadian citizens to keep the virus contained.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, spoke at the news conference of how citizens — not the state or even the health-care system — would ultimately determine the trajectory of this virus.

“The advantage of being in the Canadian system is that people will be supported to do what public health has asked them to do but everyone can change the dynamic of that curve,” Dr. Tam said. “That`s such an important message that I don’t want people to lose sight of. Individual physicians can’t do it, public health units on their own can’t do it. Everyone has to contribute.”

The prime minister followed up with reinforcement. “At this point our strongest recommendation is for Canadians to be involved in keeping themselves and their families safe,” Trudeau said.

Asking people to change their behaviour for the sake of the country is a very 20th century concept in North America, when war, duty and sacrifice were part of the political lexicon. In this century, political appeals to people’s selflessness is usually framed as: do it for your kids, or the next generation.

But governments are still keenly interested in what they can do to change individuals’ behaviour to align with national or state goals, especially when it comes to climate change, for instance. Britain set up its famous “nudge unit” within its cabinet office in the early 2000s to study how behavioural-economic insights could be turned into public policy. And Canada, for its part, has something called the “impact and innovation unit” inside government, inspired in part by the British example.

The COVID-19 virus, now a pandemic, could well become a laboratory into how governments nudge their citizens into different behaviour. Certainly that old British unit, now a separate company called the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has been having thoughts in that direction.

In a recent blog post, BIT laid out some thoughts on “how do we encourage the right behaviours during an epidemic?” It’s not easy, BIT acknowledged: the incentives for changed citizen behaviour are neither clear nor immediate. “People have no way of knowing if taking preventive steps will actually stop them contracting the virus. You’ll never know what didn’t happen.”

The blog post talks about the importance of public-health officials being front and centre to cultivate trust and why governments should be transparent, but also sparing about details,

“In some cases, less rather than more information leads to more accurate judgments,” BIT’s blog post states. “Communicating simple instructions that are easy to remember makes it more likely that people will follow them.”

I don’t know whether anyone inside the government is reading the BIT blog, but Trudeau’s news conference on Wednesday revealed a high degree of interest in the social science — as well as the medical science — of managing a pandemic.

“This is on all of us,” federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters later on Monday.

Canadian citizens have been asking a lot of their federal government in the past few months — from requests to fix snarled train traffic to the rescue of Canadians in trouble abroad. COVID-19 has turned that equation upside down. As Kennedy might have put it, this pandemic is forcing citizens to ask not what the country can do for them, but what they can do for the country.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: