We hear “We can’t police our way out of the pandemic.” Correct. But what exactly does that mean?
Laws shape human behaviour. But laws usually depend for compliance on norms (social attitudes about what ought to be done). Think of the largely successful battle against smoking. All sorts of laws were put in place, from restrictions on advertising to mandatory public health warnings. But at the same time, attitudes were changing, norms evolving. Smoking went from a glamorous social activity to an expensive, harmful addiction pursued by an entrapped minority.
That brings us to the coronavirus pandemic. To arrest its spread, we need to stay away from each other: don’t give it; don’t get it. The norms around social distancing kicked into action with a speed born of desperation. They were boosted by a sense of community (everyone can play a role) and by unqualified self-interest (I could die).
At the same time, there have been mandated responses: school closures, sealing of borders, shuttering of most retail stores and so forth. Norms and the law have moved along mutually, reinforcing each other to achieve a common goal: containment of the scourge that is amongst us.
Levels of compliance have been high. But what should be done about the minority who are not obeying? While their numbers may be small, a few recalcitrants can do a lot of harm. Just one infected person can be the source of much contagion.
More law has been the answer and we have started to fine such people. But we need to be wary. It’s one thing to penalize the host and guests of a raucous house party of 25 people, which is in clear violation of the law, norms, and the most basic common sense in these extraordinary times. A whole lot of us would think those types are getting their just desserts. Imposing a fine may also deter some other would-be partygoers.
The police – rightly – have discretion in these matters, allowing them also to educate and warn. They need to be mindful of what can be very different circumstances. A bunch of obnoxious revellers is one thing. A man playing in an empty – but closed – park with his child is another. But what if a whole lot of parents want to play in that park with their children? In this case, shouldn’t the police first educate and warn, reserving sanctions for those who refuse to listen? And maybe at least some parks need to be open for exercise as an alternative to busy city streets.
There are a number of circumstances where the police need to be keenly aware of the context. One involves minorities. Police practices have a poor record with people of colour, from carding to drug offences. What, on the surface, appear to be neutral actions often are systemic racism upon close inspection. Policing the pandemic calls for vigilance so that the rights of minorities are not trammelled. People focused on human rights and civil liberties are on the alert. There is an ongoing project that is mapping the enforcement of the restrictions put in place to fight the pandemic. There are questions about the effectiveness of ticketing in deterring noncompliance and the disproportionate impact of such policing on minorities.
Then there is there is the plight of the homeless. The pandemic has further emphasized just how desperate their situation is regarding food, shelter – and, yes, distancing. When you are on the street, staying apart can be a challenge for any number of reasons. And do we suppose that a person who is homeless is going to be able to pay a fine for not keeping separate? People on the street need the support of those who are best positioned to respond to their plight. Those helpers need resources to come to the aid of those who, for whatever reason, are without basic shelter.
The federal government has earmarked $157.5 million to support programs to aid the homeless. At the same time, thoughtful voices warn that Ontario’s Safe Streets Act and its punitive measures toward the homeless will cost lives as those without shelter turn to unsafe places to avoid penalties imposed by this legislation and its particular restrictions.
And, please, let’s not depend on snitching. Turning us against one another corrodes the social pact that is so necessary to achieve the very compliance that tattling is supposed to boost. Let’s encourage neighbours to bang on pots and pans with each other as they salute our healthcare workers. Let’s not turn them into self-appointed spies on their communities at the ready to call police hotlines.
This situation is complicated. It may become even more so as some restrictions are eased while other constraints remain in place as society gradually reopens. We cannot police our way out of this pandemic. But the mix of widely accepted norms with sanctions as a rare backup is the way to go for maximum compliance.
As we fight this plague, respect for civil liberties and concrete measures to protect the vulnerable must be at the forefront. Hard. But contrast us with Sweden. Comparisons among countries and how they have responded to the scourge can be tricky. That said, Sweden adopted a much looser stance regarding distancing and compliance based on “common sense.” At time of writing its deaths per million are 225. Ours? 72.