Applying the law of unintended consequences

May 13th, 2020

The Interim – May 12th 2020 – JOHN CARPAY

In 1958, Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong ordered his countrymen to kill all the sparrows, because these “public animals of capitalism” ate grain seeds and fruit, reducing the size of harvests. The peasants complied, using every possible method. Millions of Chinese banged on pots and pans, scaring the birds into continued flight, until they dropped from exhaustion and fell to the ground. People shot the birds and destroyed their nests. The campaign was a great success, killing an estimated two billion birds and driving the Eurasian tree sparrow to near-extinction.

The following year, crops failed as insect infestations soared. Locusts no longer had a natural predator, and ate the crops. This contributed to the Great Famine in 1959; between 15 and 45 million Chinese starved to death. This brutal famine was eventually documented by historians. The book Tombstone, published in 2008 in Hong Kong but banned in China, is one example. This is the law of unintended consequences: a singular fixation on eradicating one problem can cause other (and possibly greater) problems to emerge.

When looking to solve a problem, proposed solutions should be judged not only on their benefits, but also on their costs. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires politicians to weigh carefully not only the benefits, but also the costs, of government actions that violate our Charter rights and freedoms.

Restricting the Charter freedoms of Canadians to move, travel, associate, assemble and practice their faith can be acceptable, but only if the government meets its onerous burden of showing that Charter violations are reasonable and “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The government can legitimately quarantine sick and contagious people in order to protect the health of others. But locking down the entire population is not quarantine.

At the time of writing this column, Canada’s prime minister and premiers have yet to answer some very basic questions about the true cost of government measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.

For example, how many suicides are projected to take place as a result of governments having shut down much of our economy, forcing millions of Canadians into unemployment, bankruptcy or poverty?

How many Canadians will die because of the rise in drug overdoses, alcoholism, and other addictions that the lockdown and social isolation will cause, as the lockdown drags on for weeks or even months?

How many spouses will be abused while couples remain confined to their homes, in many cases unemployed, without money and without their usual social supports?

How many children will be put in foster care because of domestic abuse, or loss of their parents’ ability to provide for them, or both?

How many seniors will become sick or die because they no longer receive regular visitors, resulting in nobody noticing changes (e.g. weight loss or gain; change in skin colour; other ailments), such that nobody takes these sick seniors to see their family doctor for a check-up?

How many Canadians will die because the good charities that care for the weakest and most vulnerable citizens are not permitted to carry out their work, or because the donations that these non-profits rely on have dwindled or disappeared?

How many Canadians will die of cancer or other chronic diseases and conditions because their elective surgery, testing or various treatments have been cancelled due to the singular focus on fighting COVID-19?

How many Canadian children, confined to their homes while schools and playgrounds are closed and athletic activities are shut down, are projected to develop diabetes or other chronic health conditions?

How many Canadians will develop psychiatric disorders caused by governments having effectively eliminated social interaction at churches, restaurants, pubs, recreational facilities, and community centres?

How many Canadians are being denied their right to worship and attend Mass, church, synagogue, mosque or temple while the lockdown continues?

To date, it appears that politicians have not seriously contemplated these questions, let alone answered them.

We should not choose between the economy and human life. This dichotomy is false, because human life depends on economic activity, without which we cannot eat, let alone sustain a viable medical system. Food, clothing, shelter, and adequate medical care do not fall from the sky into our outstretched hands. Rather, they are paid for by money. Money cannot be earned when politicians confine tens of millions of healthy Canadians to their homes, and close tens of thousands of businesses. Governments can and should act decisively to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19, but this must be done in a way that does not cause Canadians to disproportionately die of other causes.

 Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre.