As we enter the third month of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, provinces are starting to reopen.
Ontario will announce details of “stage one” of reopening on Thursday, Alberta is set to announce similar measures this week, while schools in Quebec have already started back up.
But as provinces unveil and start to execute their reopening plans, people are going to be faced with some tough decisions. How many people do you let into your bubble, and who? Is a physical-distanced visit in the park better than just staying home? Even if things are opening up, should you go get that haircut you’ve been waiting for?
After the go-ahead signal from B.C.’s government this weekend to start lifting some social distancing, I tentatively opened my bubble to a few friends, meeting one for an afternoon park visit on a blanket in the sun. But even then I grappled with if I should even be doing that, or if the truly best thing to do was stay home completely for the foreseeable future.
WATCH: When you’re allowed to ‘double your bubble,’ joy follows. Story continues below.
University of British Columbia social psychology professor Azim Shariff says the morality of the pandemic and doing what’s best for the collective good is incredibly complex.
Shariff said many people think of easing restrictions as a binary between saving lives (staying home in lockdown) and endangering people (going out). But everyone staying in complete social isolation probably isn’t the most moral choice either, Shariff explained.
“It’s very easy for us to quantify that people are dying directly from COVID-19,” he said. “What’s much less obvious, though, and is equally important, is all the indirect costs [of being locked down].”
He said opening the economy isn’t just about making money — it’s people’s livelihoods, mental well-being and physical well-being, too, and that those indirect costs can often disproportionately affect working-class and marginalized people. But people don’t always think about those costs of staying in because that data and conversation isn’t as readily available.
“There’s lives on both sides,” he said. “And people aren’t properly factoring that in.”
Shariff said the idea of opening the economy has become politicized and associated with figures like U.S. President Donald Trump. But in reality, it does have to happen at some point in order to mitigate all of those indirect costs.
“The optimal position is somewhere in between the extremes [of open and closed] obviously,” he said.
“There's lives on both sides.”
To complicate things further, that optimal position varies from place to place. The best decision as to expanding your bubble correctly is very different based on circumstances in Vancouver compared to Toronto or Montreal.
“Morality is entirely based on local circumstance … It doesn’t make sense to use the same strategy everywhere,” he said.
While some provinces detail what’s allowed or not explicitly, others are leaving it up to individuals and moral decision-making. B.C. falls into the latter category.
Despite confirming some of Canada’s earliest cases and the nation’s first death, B.C. has largely experienced a flattened COVID-19 curve compared to more hard-hit provinces like Quebec and Ontario. Experts attribute it to a mix of luck, timing and rapid response to localized outbreaks. But regardless, Shariff said, it means the reopening situation is different there than out east.
“I think B.C. is one of the places most able to afford to have looser restrictions because we’re facing less of a threat,” he said. “And so, we’re able to not have the authorities come in and say, explosively you must do this, or you’ll be punished, we can rely more on people’s judgments and allow them more freedom. So that’s nice for us, but also lucky for us.”
B.C. was one of the last major provinces to unveil a reopening plan. And when Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the plan last week, it was unique in that it relied on the goodwill of residents rather than concrete restrictions to keep the curve flat.
“Keep the gatherings small, and use your common sense,” Horgan said.
The plan doesn’t have concrete dates or exact lists of which businesses should open or how people should expand their social circles — colloquially known as “bubbles.” Rather, it aims to educate people to make good, smart choices for themselves and the people around them.
“We have been successful as a province, extraordinarily successful by comparison to other jurisdictions in the world,” Horgan said. “But we can’t give up the ground we’ve made.”
Over the weekend, people flooded Vancouver’s green spaces and beaches as temperatures climbed close to 30 C. Social media backlash ensued as photos circulated seemingly showing people tightly packed on the beaches — though other angles showed many of the groups were actually spaced far apart.
WATCH: Dear Vancouver, This Is Not Social Distancing. Story continues below.
While some people were certainly not following the rules, many residents defended the choice to go to parks, saying they practised safe social distancing and getting outside with your household was actually encouraged by health officials.
Shariff says the judgment being cast on Vancouver from other places not in the same situation is a good example of how contextual morality is based on place and circumstance.
Not fully locking down the province in the first place and trusting people to make good choices worked to flatten the curve, so it makes sense the province will try that strategy to keep it flat.
“Keep the gatherings small, and use your common sense.”
“Every place has different circumstances,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out exactly what the best strategy to deal with this is, and so the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.”
Ultimately, no matter where you are, Shariff says, people need to weigh all of the considerations when deciding how to proceed as provinces reopen.
“Critically interrogate your motives for a behaviour and we should be genuinely cognizant of the trade-offs that are involved,” he said.
So go forth and slowly start to expand your bubble — if that’s the right thing to do for you.
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