COVID panel’s recommendations are crucial if we want to protect individual freedoms and ensure accountability in future crises
The COVID-19 pandemic – and the official responses to it – left no person, group or country unaffected: lost learning from school closures, crushed businesses and ruined lives occurred everywhere, on top of the actual disease deaths.
Yet the governments and organizations that designed and oversaw the emergency’s “management” proved decidedly incurious about determining whether they even did a good job, and what might be done differently next time. The UK and Sweden are among the few countries to have undertaken formal national inquiries.
In Canada, the Trudeau government refused calls for a public inquiry, likely because it feared what any investigation – let alone a royal commission – would turn up. Every Canadian province has aped Trudeau’s indolence, except Alberta. Early this year the province created the Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel, fulfilling a promise Danielle Smith made before she became premier, to “review the legislation and governance practices” used during the management of public emergencies and to recommend improvements.
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In mid-November the Panel – a distinguished group that included two medical academics, two senior economists and a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, in addition to chair Preston Manning – produced a densely written Final Report (367 pages including appendices). Though hysterically criticized by Alberta’s NDP opposition and its friends in the government-funded media, the Panel has rendered valuable and, indeed, unparalleled public service.
There is nothing else like this Panel’s work in Canada or anywhere in North America.
Two categories of the Final Report’s many recommendations appear the most remarkable. One calls for decisively restoring the management of future emergencies, including any pandemic, to the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), under the policy direction of the elected government. The other aims to protect individual rights to free expression and open inquiry for professionals, academics and ordinary citizens against out-of-control officials and organizations intent on cancelling unorthodox analyses and opinions.
Recall that in spring 2020, a panic-stricken Alberta government turned over responsibility for managing the COVID-19 event to a narrowly trained M.D. who quickly became known as “Alberta’s top doctor” and was handed effective life-or-death authority over numerous areas she knew nothing about. Why Deena Hinshaw ended up in charge and why existing emergency management procedures were ignored have never been explained.
The AEMA had been established in 2005 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to prepare for various emergencies, including an anticipated influenza pandemic. The agency was designed and would be staffed by individuals who specialize in emergencies. Emergency management efforts would not be directed by narrow “subject-matter experts” specializing in the specific attributes of an anticipated emergency’s cause, such as influenza. The AEMA’s procedures were like the approach Sweden would apply so successfully against COVID-19.
For the same reason that vulcanologists are not in charge of an emergency response to a volcanic eruption, you shouldn’t put doctors in charge of a province-wide public health emergency. Rather, trained emergency professionals who can adequately assess all areas implicated by a particular emergency – such as the economy – take the lead. The Panel therefore recommended that AEMA be strengthened through stable long-term funding and by clarifying legislation to ensure it is always the lead agency, including when the next big disease hits.
(Others have ably commented on the Final Report’s excellent recommendation that Alberta’s schools should never again be closed except in extremis, and that lockdowns and mass-masking be avoided if at all possible.)
The Report’s second critical group of recommendations concerns the preservation of individual rights, calling for significant legislative changes to a host of laws, including the Alberta Bill of Rights.
The definition of what even constitutes an “emergency” would be significantly tightened. After one is declared, citizens could more easily seek stays of government actions that violate rights and freedoms. The “right to personal autonomy and integrity” would be added to the province’s Bill of Rights, along with guarantees of informed consent and freedom from enforced medical treatment. Employees declining to comply with emergency mandates could be suspended but not permanently fired. Employer vaccine mandates would become a last resort after all other options were exhausted.
A whole section on “Providing Explicit Protection for Freedom of Expression, Academic Freedom and Professional Freedom” calls for legislative changes to prevent institutional censorship by regulated professions and academic institutions to silence dissenting opinions. Professional colleges would be asked to tighten their definitions of “unprofessional conduct” and recognize members’ rights to freedom of expression.
Note that these changes don’t merely cover dissenting opinions by doctors during a medical emergency. They cover any issue, at any time. The Panel couched its recommendations in soothing language, affirming the good intentions and good faith of these organizations. But, pointedly, it included a recommendation that the UCP government arm itself with the authority to order these organizations to restore free inquiry and free expression should they refuse to do so on their own.
The Panel, in short, wants to ensure that never again will doctors, nurses, any other professionals or academics be subject to retaliation, abuse or termination for expressing views contrary to the dominant narrative – as thousands were in Alberta and across Canada during the pandemic.
If the UCP government makes the required changes to the Alberta Bill of Rights, they will be much harder to undo in future than amending obscure administrative laws. These changes could also help set up a broader counter-attack against the woke-driven politicization of our universities and professional colleges. The possibilities are breathtaking.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. His latest books are Paleolithic Politics (2020) and, with Marco Navarro-Génie, COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2021). The original, full-length version of this article was recently published by C2C Journal.
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