The COVID-19 pandemic feels surreal. Streets of our cities are nearly empty, even at rush hour. Kids are home, schools have gone online, and some workers log in from home after many years of regular commutes to an office. And huge numbers of workers have been laid off.
This column was written long before you read it. But even in early March, I told my classes: “Revisit this in a month: Canada will handle the coronavirus better than our neighbours to the south.”
COVID-19 shows us that health is a public thing, not a personal quality of the individual. A prime difference between the United States and Canada is the relative value of private goods versus the public good. That is why Canada has a public health-care system. That is why Canadians have performed physical distancing better than Americans. That is why I told my students that Canada will handle this contagious disease—not-yet-a-pandemic at that time—better than the U.S. We pay more attention to the public good, not just the private good.
Health is both a public good and a private good. A private good is for the individual. A public good is that which is accessible to all, and which access by some does not preclude access by others. Being healthy is good for a person; keeping many people healthy is good for everyone. In times of pandemic, it is absolutely necessary to focus on the public-good side of health. Many of us can be healthy and it doesn’t reduce health for others. But if we get unhealthy with COVID-19 and don’t practise physical distancing, it reduces the public good because it increases transmission of the virus.
The countries doing well in the face of COVID-19 are founded on a better sense of the public good. Rather than letting everything be the responsibility of the individual, from the sense of the good for all, there arises a willingness to change behaviour to benefit others.
Following from that, such countries build stronger institutions—collective structures. Another factor in the responses to COVID-19 is how much attention was paid to expert analysis, like epidemiological science. Anti-intellectualism is a form of individualism, when people have blind faith in self-competence (the attitude that “I don’t need anyone else to tell me something”).
As Christians, we are guided to care for other people. To care for individuals is not the same as to care for the public good. For the most part, charity is the sharing of private goods with others. Social justice is an outgrowth of agape love in terms of the public good.
I acknowledge that freedom and the public good are in tension. Too much infringement yields authoritarianism or stagnant societies, but too much freedom yields “everyone for him/herself.” Finding the balance is an ongoing task.
Societal and governmental responses here and around the world show that people and institutions can change quickly. To address this pandemic we crashed the economy—what so many said should not be done to address climate change. When we are able to rebuild, it should be with the view to address the ultimate public-good problems of wealth inequality and ecological sustainability. A topic we will surely be discussing in the next while will be “universal basic income.” We now know that it can be done—for the greater public good and the good of all creation.
Randolph Haluza-DeLay attends First Mennonite Church in Edmonton and teaches sociology at The King’s University.