In Praise Of Our Pandemic Politicians
It’s funny the conversations you remember. In the late sixties, I was a kid, the Premier of Ontario was a Londoner named John Robarts, and my father got to know him, mostly by coincidence. My dad told me that he was challenging the Premier one day about the big problems of the day (which probably haven’t changed much in the decades since), and Robarts – who had previously been a City Councillor – challenged him right back. He said “You know, we put the best people we have in the cabinet. These are very difficult problems and we are doing the best we can. If you’d like to join us rather than just criticizing, then feel free come on board.”
One of the most interesting things about this pandemic has been the opportunity to watch our elected politicians lead during a crisis ‘in real time’. We’ve been able to see them unscripted and unpackaged; real people operating in ever changing life and death circumstances that no-one fully understands or is able to control. They have had to balance the threat to our collective health against the nearly equal threat of economic devastation, in the glare of daily scrutiny, while many of their critics consciously refused to behave safely, responsibly or even rationally.
Of course they were making it up as they went along. Of course they made mistakes. And in the last two months, as we were almost overtaken by surprisingly dangerous new variants just as the vaccines began to arrive, people have begun taking out their anger with this seemingly unending crisis on the leaders who didn’t stop it fast enough for them, or get everything exactly right. Polls which previously soared are now cratering. Are these leaders any worse or different now than they were six months ago? Do any of us seriously think that if we had ‘come on board’ we’d have done dramatically better? Maybe it’s time to give them a break.
The scientists have also made serious errors. In the beginning, they didn’t understand the importance of masks. Until very recently, many actively shunned rapid testing when it is clear it could have helped stopped the spread much sooner (millions of these tests remain unused). But their approval ratings remain high. I am not criticizing these experts, they have similarly done the very best they could with the knowledge they had in the heat of dangerous, urgent, churning circumstances.
Many of us have undermined our political leaders’ best efforts to keep us safe. When they tried to shut down only the ‘hot regions’, those residents car pooled over to the safer areas so they could shop and spread the virus there, social distancing be damned. When that behavior forces the governments to enforce a more draconian stay at home approach as the variants overrun our ICU wards, everyone gets angrier still (maybe just at the wrong targets).
Of course there is a political element. Politics is the sum total of society’s emotions and knowledge, usually in that order. Politicians get re-elected by listening to us, and they are entitled to make a living. They respond to the pressure we all relentlessly put on them as rationally and reasonably as they can.
I have watched it up close, trust me, it’s a tough, unrelenting gig. My mother, Joan Smith, was a City Councillor and then a Provincial Cabinet Member some time ago. Like most politicians, she worked really hard, did her very best and accomplished a lot of good; when she made mistakes, people and especially the media generally demonized her. That’s why it’s so hard to get good people to ‘come on board’. Everyone (including me) would rather sit back.
So I admit that I have a soft spot for politicians generally. After all, that’s my mom you’re talking about. Still, before we all rush to judgement, it may not be the worst idea to slow down a bit, maybe take a walk in their shoes first. Perhaps even see what you might do to help out. Premier Robarts wasn’t far off the mark, five decades ago.
Thanks for reading.