The need for planning (or the limits of knee-jerk COVID policy)

A New Year, a New Lockdown

Yesterday, 30th Dec 2021, the prime minister of Québec announced yet another round of confinement, curfew and other restrictive measures, all in service of closing the barn door after the horse bolted.

Anyone else feel like this?
“Anyone else feel like this?” by Bennilover is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

With confirmed COVID cases now running at 14 to 16 000 a day in Québec, our expert and evidence-driven policies are attempting to contain the equivalent of the common cold: a quixotic endeavour.

Now, I am not suggesting that Omicron is as benign as the common cold: it can lead to severe complications. However, it is super-transmissible and, for many people, fairly benign. It appears primarily confined to the upper respiratory tract, usually leaving the lungs intact.

How much longer can we – as a society – implement dramatic authoritarian measures of questionable impact (given the huge infection rate)?

The limits of (evidence-based) knee-jerk policy

Ever since draconian measures were implemented to combat COVID, I have heard experts on the radio and in print tell us why they are necessary. We are enjoined to obediently accept this expertise because they are researchers in white coats who know a lot about viruses. Our freedoms to travel, to congregate, to meet friends and family are curtailed on the basis of evidence produced in labs and interpreted in a rather narrow way.

I recognise and accept this medical and biological expertise. I am grateful for their work on vaccines and for their investigation of the biology and transmission of viruses. I am thankful for their treatment of people who are ill.

Yet their expertise is partial: when I hear a health expert or virologist say we need to limit social interactions, I ask myself “What do they know about social interactions?”.

Virologists know about a viruses, epidemiologists about the spread of illness, and doctors about treating sick people. Their knowledge is invaluable, but does not translate simply into public policy.

The key roles of evidence and debate

This does not mean that policies should ignore evidence: it means that they should incorporate wider evidence in a more thoughtful way.

Why? Because the consequences and repercussions of COVID reach far beyond white-coated specialisms, far beyond any specific body of knowledge.

When decisions are made upon the recommendations of a specific group of officially sanctioned experts (in this case selected medical and biology experts), it means that other areas of expertise (e.g. psychology, sociology, economics…) are downplayed.

The translation of expertise and knowledge into policy calls for informed and reasonable debate, not for authoritarian policies cloaked in the robes of ‘evidence’ and ’emergency’.

Evidence and debate should lead to long-term planning

COVID is now entering its third year. It is no longer a medical ’emergency’: it is now part of everyday life. A far wider gamut of expertise and interpretation should be marshalled to assess which measures should be implemented for the longer-term good of society at large.

Indeed, society itself needs to more clearly identify what the ‘longer-term good’ consists of: this calls for informed public debate (difficult in a world of polarised social media, but still maybe feasible in Québec).

For example: long-term health-care planning

One area of policy-making that is sorely missing in Québec is long-term structural planning for the health-care system. It’s all very well for the government to decree (yet another) lock-down because the system is overwhelmed: but our hospital emergency wards were in deep crisis before COVID started.

Where are the long-term plans? What are the choices Québec faces to ensure health-care for its citizens? Two years into the COVID crisis we should drop the word ‘crisis’ and grapple with such underlying issues.

To conclude – this is what planning is all about

We currently have no choice but to comply with knee-jerk short-termist decrees, but two years into the crisis this approach has run its course. We need a debate drawing upon expertise, politics and the wider public, to plan a way forward for Québec over the longer term.

This is what planning (of which urban planning is a manifestation) is all about.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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