Monday, May 18, 2020

On breaches of trust

Among other lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, we should be taking the opportunity to ask ourselves what we expect from our leaders - and whether they're living up to the standards we need to set for the public good.

That represents more than a matter of choosing ideal leaders. It's been well documented that social trust is one of the crucial factors in allowing a society to survive a collective action problem. And while a single government alone may not be able to establish or eradicate trust altogether, its choices figure to heavily influence how people react to a crisis.

Which brings us to the multiple breakdowns of trust under Scott Moe and the Saskatchewan Party government - all of them directly affecting the decisions Saskatchewan people make, and all posing grave threats both in their first-order effects, and in their resulting damage to social trust.

Let's start with the simple matter of the facts about COVID-19, and the Saskatchewan Party's seeming conclusion that we're better off not knowing where we're at the most risk.

It was dubious enough when a previous outbreak at Lloydminster's hospital was suppressed from the public for a period of days. (And it's hardly any consolation that part of that time was the result of a lack of communication within the government which is supposed to be looking out for everybody.)

But this past week's news from Regina's Pasqua Hospital establishes a pattern of COVID-19 cases in hospitals being suppressed. And this time, that secrecy came with the added bonus of Moe cutting off the normal flow of COVID-19 reporting for the long weekend to avoid answering questions about it.

That deliberate non-disclosure creates immediate risks for anybody who decides to attend to an hospital without being told that there's a known issue on site. But even more perniciously, it also creates reason for suspicion everywhere else: if we can't count on cases being reported when they arise in medical facilities, then people may avoid necessary care when it could safely be provided. (And we should fully expect addressing a backlog in needed-but-not-urgent care to be a far higher priority than the recreational businesses at the top of Moe's priority list for reopening.)

Beyond what Moe's government deigns to tell us, our trust is also necessarily affected by its competence (or lack thereof) in responding to a pandemic.

There, Moe has blindly followed Alberta in ritual Ottawa-bashing aimed at Health Canada, only to wind up ordering tests that don't work because he wouldn't allow a federal regulator to do its job. The Saskatchewan Party failed utterly to provide needed resources for mental health generally and suicide prevention in particular, even while using those systemic problems as an excuse to reopen businesses and increase the risk of community transmission of COVID-19. And it's provided pitiful excuses for relief out of provincial coffers, even as Moe has postured about allowing the federal government to help at all without his say-so.

Finally, we come to a government's willingness to listen and accept both suggestions and criticism. And there too, all evidence is that both the interests of deeply affected people and vital lines of communication have been cut off by choice - paired with deception and denial as to who's been kept in the loop.

Just ask the essential workers who are being told at best that they have to use paid sick leave in order to follow public health orders, and at worst that they're not allowed to try to protect their health at all.

Or the leaders from Northern Saskatchewan who were forced to set up their own response team after urging the province take some action to stop an outbreak which they could see coming - only to have Moe ignore them entirely at the beginning, then falsely assert they'd been included once the public health damage was too obvious for him to say nothing.

And of course, the people's mechanism for holding the government to account remains shut down due to the personal whims of the Premier, even as he tries to point the finger at a party which doesn't have authority to reopen the Legislature. Once again, the pattern is both to reject the basic structures of social cohesion and response, and to be dishonest about how he's chosen to undermine them. 

Fortunately, Saskatchewan voters have the option of a leader whose reaction to a crisis is to do everything he can to help, rather than to try to keep the public strictly isolated from the truth. But it's tragic that we're having to see the consequences of the avoidable erosion of trust first.

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