COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada

COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada maps the trajectory of the first two years of the pandemic through the lens of applied ethics. Whereas the public discussion of the pandemic often centres on data, the essays and articles that make up the chapters of this book approach COVID-19 as an issue of morality and values.

A key argument running through the text is that Canada’s response to the pandemic has been a failure of ethical action. The impacts of this failure can be seen in the disintegration of social relations and the fragmentation of Canadian identity. This book offers an unflinching look at how Canada failed the test of common decency and where the country goes from here.

Two years of COVID-19 in Canada: a failure of ethical action

March 11, 2022, marks two years since the World Health Organization declared the pandemic. In that time, COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 37,000 people in Canada, though there are some indications the true number is much higher.

COVID-19 is a term that indicates a biological organism – a virus. Epidemiology and mathematical modelling explain its spread and function in the world. Medical practitioners speak to its impacts on the human body and the population as a whole. Statisticians depict the results in tables, charts, and graphs.

But COVID-19 is also a social and cultural phenomenon. It changed the way of life for people in Canada and around the world. It changed how people work and interact. It changed elements of the consumer economy and the things people do for entertainment.

And almost overnight, it changed what people consider appropriate behaviour in public and the meaning of right and wrong. The pandemic has been, from the outset, about ways of living and ways of acting, and therefore fundamentally about ethics.

An ethical history of COVID-19 in Canada

Beginning in March 2020, I set out to understand the pandemic from the point of view of ethics. I wrote brief essays and articles about significant flashpoints to do with COVID-19 in Canada.

I initially thought that the pandemic, while obviously a serious crisis and heralding an era of disruption, was an opportunity for positive change, a moment people would step up, come together, and enact values of collective care.

To be sure, there were moments when people came together to face adversity as a common front and an initial vim for social solidarity. People were singing their support from the rooftops and cheering for healthcare workers. It was a moment of deep uncertainty but it was also a moment of common struggle.

But all that stopped, and quicker than I would have imagined. Issues came up to do with financial support for workers. Forms of racism and stigma emerged, aimed at specific communities and related to the borders. With global shortages of personal protective equipment, there was a tendency toward forms of nationalism.

By the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, it became clear what was happening was a profound failure of ethical action. I can think of no greater ethical wrong that has been so obviously committed in such a short period of time in living memory in this country.

The consequences of failure

There needs to be a serious reckoning for what has happened. I am not certain a lot of people will be anxious to engage with the scale of failure and human tragedy that is our legacy from the pandemic. It may have long-term impacts on social relations, workplaces, families, and on the very idea of what it means to be Canadian.

For example, recent protests have many people questioning what is happening in Canada. As I argue, this is just a symptom of the underlying pathology and a direct consequence of the failure of ethical action.

Such a failure also raises serious questions about challenges coming in the future, such as the capacity to deal with the consequences of climate change or to authentically engage in a project of reconciliation. Given how Canada responded to the pandemic, it is difficult to imagine this country could adequately rise to such challenges.

The experience of the pandemic, at least for me, is a source of enormous disappointment. That disappointment is not entirely irredeemable, but makes it difficult to find any silver lining. If you are the type of reader who needs that, perhaps it is best if we part ways here.

But if you are the type of reader who wants to peer through the looking glass and take stock of what happened in Canada in the COVID-19 pandemic, then read on.

Book cover for COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada by Jon Parsons

COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada by Jon Parsons

EBook and print book cover for COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada

COVID-19 and Ethics in Canada keywords and tags

COVID-19, ethics, Canada, applied ethics, morals, values, Canadian identity, social relations, social cohesion, vaccines, vaccine mandates, anti-vaccine, anti-mandate, protest, social solidarity, workers, social class, disability, race, marginalization, journalism, collectivism, individualism