Letter from the editor: The false choice between our health and our businesses

A woman wearing a mask exits a grocery store in Airdrie, Alta., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, amid a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages into its ninth month, there’s been a creeping shift in how some politicians and journalists are talking about the crisis. Too often, they turn it into a binary: you’re either for the economy or you’re for public health. 

This is, of course, a false equivalence. Those who monitor rising infection rates care deeply about the long-term impacts of an economic shutdown, and those who monitor rising unemployment care deeply about keeping us safe. But increasingly, the crisis is pitting us against each other.

Take the case of Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara’s acting medical officer of health. After instituting restrictions on restaurant dining this week, Hirji faced an onslaught of criticism from local councillors and business owners—including a deluge of hateful and harassing phone calls—demanding he “immediately halt” his binding decision. Of course, Hirji, who declined an interview request from The Logic, doesn’t see the pandemic as a binary, telling a council meeting Wednesday night the decision “really pained” him. All politics is local, but it seems all public health is relative if it jeopardizes Main Street. 

The attacks go both ways. 

“I’ve been accused of not taking COVID-19 seriously enough when I call some of the [policy] measures into question.” Dan Kelly told me this week. Kelly runs the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, a group representing the interests of small businesses decimated during the pandemic. 

Last Friday, a reporter asked Ontario Premier Doug Ford why, in his daily press conferences, he hadn’t mentioned the lives lost to the pandemic as much as he had mentioned the businesses shuttered. I’m paraphrasing the question, and it’s worth watching the entire clip because it shows how, in asking a reasonable and fair question, the reporter unintentionally contributes to this binary framing.

Kelly, who made it clear he understands the importance of keeping everyone safe, says if there is a divide brewing it’s because business owners are less tolerant than they were during the first wave because they feel they’re being scapegoated by policymakers who are using them to set an example for the rest of the population. It’s easier for politicians to be seen to be doing something to bring down the number of positive COVID cases by making rules for public settings, Kelly argued, because they have fewer ways to restrict people’s private conduct.

“Even if shopping is a low-risk activity, let’s kill shopping to send a message to the public that… I’d better stay home,” he said.

“Business owners were incredibly and willingly compliant with the rules in March and April because nobody had a clue what was going on. They recognized the government had to take swift but blunt action. But eight months later, this is different, and people are asking those questions, and I don’t think they should be accused of being Trump acolytes simply because they’re asking some questions about these measures right now.”

But don’t think Canadian politicians didn’t take note of Donald Trump’s unexpected strength at the polls in this month’s U.S. presidential election. After being briefed by the prime minister on the pandemic Thursday, new Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said in a statement, “After thousands of lives and millions of jobs have been lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars has been added to the national debt, we as a country are worse off than we were at the start of the pandemic.”

Coronavirus or the economy: the pandemic is becoming a wedge issue. 

Despite his Twitter feed lighting up on a regular basis, Kelly remains optimistic that there’s a great deal of sympathy for the small businesses impacted by the pandemic. 

“I don’t think that political leaders are automatically being viewed as careless if they resist the temptation to simply lock down the economy altogether,” he said.  

Let’s hope he’s right. If cooler heads can’t prevail, and the rhetoric and political jostling continues, then a long, cold winter is going to get even chillier.