Canada’s brief spring of pandemic-imposed political harmony seems to be winding down

An international polling firm recently asked citizens of each of the G7 countries to identify their most reliable source of information about the novel coronavirus outbreak. In France, Germany, Italy and Japan, the top choice was “TV news,” while the largest number of Americans chose their doctors and health care providers.

In Canada, a plurality — 30 per cent — said their most trusted source was “government/politicians,” a figure rivalled only by the 28 per cent of British citizens who said the same about their political leaders. In the United States, just 10 per cent identified government and politicians as their preferred source of information.

Whatever goodwill Canadian officials have won over the last two months could become all the more valuable now as the country moves into a new phase of the crisis. But that trust and unity also might become much harder for governments to maintain — particularly if we’re already seeing the start of the first real political divisions of the pandemic.

The recent uptick in support and approval for elected leaders doesn’t necessarily mark a reversal of the long-term trend toward declining levels of trust in Western societies. “When we’re anxious,” one American political scientist said recently, “we need to put our trust in someone to protect us.”

How governments earn trust

But it does at least suggest we’re still capable of trusting political leaders. And there are also probably some good reasons for this warming trend in public trust.

Non-partisan health officials — people with real expertise — have been put front and centre by Canadian governments to explain what is happening and what needs to be done. Federal and provincial political leaders have repeated consistent messages that echo the experts’ advice. Citizens have been asked to make significant sacrifices, but governments have cushioned that hardship with extra support that has, for the most part, been delivered expeditiously.

Each of those pieces reinforces the other to build trust and hold things together. A sense of common cause — “stronger together” — might one day be remembered as the defining feeling of the first two months of the pandemic in Canada.

But what if shutting down most of the economy and largely confining people to their homes was the easy part?

How safe do you feel, Canada?

Maintaining public trust will be even more vital now. Though the premiers and the federal government have started to lay out plans and principles for “reopening” society, the resumption of economic activity is going to depend on people feeling it’s safe enough to go into stores, restaurants and schools.

As British Columbia Premier John Horgan pointed out this week, “all of the businesses that have been shuttered could open tomorrow and if the public, the consuming public, is not confident in their personal well-being, they’re not going to enter those establishments.”

To that end, the Ontario government has released a series of new guidelines for businesses and has promised that provincial inspectors will enforce those standards.

“Today is a glimmer of hope,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and he’s “optimistic” that in the near future more businesses will be able to open up safely. 0:52

Still, the potential for new outbreaks remains; federal modelling continues to assume that there will be periodic bumps in the infection rate throughout the fall and winter. Enhanced testing and contact tracing may limit the impact of those outbreaks, but Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said this week that his province’s plan will be subject to change and, in some cases, restrictions may have to be re-imposed.

We’re sharing the costs — but not the risks

While provinces aligned their approaches to shutting down schools and businesses fairly quickly, there is a risk now that provincial approaches could start to diverge — as exemplified by Quebec’s relatively aggressive plan to reopen schools in May.

Just as the virus has exposed vulnerabilities in the health care system, particularly for elderly Canadians in long-term care centres, the reopening could also expose inequalities in work and life — between those who have access to child care and those who don’t, those who can afford to stay home and those who can’t, and those whose jobs put them at greater risk and those who are relatively safe. Already, there have been serious outbreaks in a meat processing plant in Alberta and among migrant workers at a farm in Ontario.

A masked staffer works a Walmart checkout line. The pandemic’s effects are being worsened by economic inequality, since many Canadians can’t afford to stay away from jobs that put them at risk of infection. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

“I think there will be an emerging divide between people who can choose when and how much to change their social distancing and those who can’t,” said Jennifer Robson, a professor and policy analyst at Carleton university and one of a number of academics to be consulted by the federal government.

Political tensions start to rise

There’s also a political split opening up over the possibility that government aid to the unemployed might be discouraging people from returning to work.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said this week that his province is “fighting against a federal program that is actually paying people to stay out of the workforce right now” — an apparent reference to the federal supports that provide up to $2,000 per month to those who are out of work because of COVID-19.

In fact, for most Canadians, the most powerful incentive to stay home probably will continue to be a highly contagious and deadly virus. But if a significant number of businesses aren’t able to find people willing to work, the role and design of government aid could become a significant point of contention.

The tools that have served governments well so far — transparency, regular updates, readily available financial supports and actions based on an abundance of caution — might continue to be useful in the weeks ahead. Opinion polling also suggests that Canadians are in no great rush to reopen the economy.

But the longer this virus is with us, the more things will emerge with the potential to grind away at public trust and break things apart.

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