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Exit Covid

What have we learned, and where should Canada be focusing post-pandemic?

Cardus White Paper | JUNE 21st 2021

Watch Night Two:

Watch Night One:


Well! Here we are at last in the final innings of the Covid pandemic.

Cardus does its best work when it identifies both the questions people are asking and the questions we as a people should be asking.

Cardus’s areas of research have been near the top of our collective minds from the outset of the panic. Although the surface every day—sometimes it feels like every hour—has been an obsession with Covid, the underlying issues have been what this means:

  • for our families and our care for each other and especially our elderly,
  • our working futures,
  • for our cities, suburbs and ex-urbs,
  • for the education of our children,
  • for the future role of government, and
  • for our faith.

In the days after prior crises, people have questioned and re-imagined their worlds. Some historians say the Protestant Reformation had its roots in the bubonic plague of the 14th century. The wholesale reimagination after the Great Depression and WWII largely built our world today.

Going into this crisis we were appropriately concerned at the polarization that seemed to be sweeping the globe. We are already seeing how the reactions to the pandemic are being filtered through a polarized lens.

Finally, I was struck by the fact that this may have been the first broad crisis that has been lived in thoroughly secular terms. The broader community seems to have not only not welcomed spiritual insight or care: it has seemed to assign religious worship a value smaller than coffee shops and bars. There seems no broad sympathy or understanding for a sense of the sacred held by people of faith.

This White Paper, prepared by Senior Fellow Dr. Robert Joustra, is an excellent launching pad for the fact gathering, thought, and future directions this remarkable historical episode offers for Canadians.

We are starting this today with the end of this pandemic in sight. But truly we are just starting the process of thinking and debate. Policy makers, politicians, advocates of all types sense there is an opportunity to move the country from listening to acting on their proposals.

Cardus’s growth in depth and breadth over the past 20 years has prepared us for this period. The apostle Paul urges us to be joyful in hardship. We are well prepared, and now the hard, but joyful work begins.

Help us learn from your experiences and lessons. Help us consider the full menu of choices and future paths that are opening up for debate. Help us provide Canadians with thoughtful and faithful answers to the questions Providence has asked us in these days.

Geoff Cowper,
Chair of the Board of Directors - Cardus

Cardus is a non-partisan, faith-based think tank and registered charity dedicated to promoting a flourishing society through independent research, robust public dialogue, and thought-provoking commentary.

How to cite: “Exit COVID: What have we learned, and where should Canada be focusing post-pandemic?” Cardus, 2021. http://www.exitcovid.ca.

© Cardus, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoncommercialNoDerivatives Works 4.0 International License.


Crisis changes us, as people, as societies. But plagues are a special kind of crisis. The COVID-19 crisis has been perhaps the most comprehensive, thoroughgoing crisis in Canada since the Second World War.

Imagine Canada like a car: we’ve just had the rare experience of smashing our economy, culture, and society into a brick wall at high speed—whether through the disease itself or our response to it. And like crash-test engineers, we now have to perform the analysis.

What did we learn? How did we fare? What performed better than expected, and what worse? And, most importantly, where do we go from here?

The conservation of health... is without doubt the primary good and foundation of all other goods of this life.

René DescartesDiscourse on Method(1637)

One has one’s little pleasure for the day, and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has regard for health.

Friedrich NietzscheThus Spoke Zarathustra(1885)

This paper seeks to answer these questions. In Part I, we will scan expert opinions, from think tanks, media, and academics across the country. What have they learned from this crash test, and where do they think we’re headed? We’ll see that these experts have focused on seven key questions, and they do not all agree on the answers:

1.What exactly happened in this pandemic? Is the pandemic a reset of society, or is it an acceleration of existing trends? Should we expect fundamental and permanent change, or a greater intensification of what was already there?
2.What do we mean by value, and how do we measure it? Do we really value what we thought we did, when crisis bears down on us with its bracing and clarifying light?
3.Whom can we trust? Did the pandemic exacerbate trends of polarization, isolation, and fragmentation, or did it pull us closer with a common goal, against a common threat?
4.What is science, and how has its practice and reputation been tested during this crisis? When we talk about “believing in science,” what do we mean? How well does our society organize the actual application of scientific ideas or insights?
5.Do we know how to understand risk, and are we able to understand and apply models of risk at a large scale, under significant pressure? Which risks are tolerable, and which are not? On what basis do we decide?
6.Is justice technocratic? In other words, are the fundamental decisions that affect us all best made by specialized experts, or by generalist leaders after they have received the experts’ array of technical advice and weigh the options? Is this distinction helpful? How did and should government leaders weigh expert input against their own unique task to pursue public justice?
7.And finally, what exactly do we mean by government? A veritable torrent of criticism has washed over governments of all levels, at home and abroad. What is it that we expect from our different levels of government? How are these levels arranged so as to deliver or fail to deliver on our expectations? What lessons can we learn about democratic governance during crisis?

In Part II, we will zero in on several key sectors in Canadian society and culture that the experts highlight as especially vulnerable and that bear out the consequences of uncertainty in the higher-level questions of Part I. We will look more closely at the following:

  • Education,

  • Family,

  • Health care,

  • Work and labour,

  • Social solidarity and charity,

  • Trade and geopolitics, and

  • Rights, freedoms, and democracy.

How did these sectors in particular weather the pandemic storm, and how do our big, society-level questions show up in these sectors’ challenges? Where do we see them succeeding, where did they fail, and what are their prospects going forward in a post-pandemic world?

This paper will conclude with a return to our initial set of questions, but with evaluation in mind: do we like where we’re headed? Whether the question is one of value, trust, authority, risk, or justice—or if we drill down more specifically into family, health care, rights and freedoms, education, or trade—what we at Cardus observe is this: While the pandemic did indeed intensify the stress on many parts of North Atlantic society and culture, nowhere has that stress been more dramatic than on the ties that bind, on the tether that holds these sectors together, on—in a phrase—our common life.

The pandemic has shown that at our most basic, the commitment that Canadians hold in common is a kind of pragmatic, biological security. It is a Secular platform on which each person chooses among the moral and transcendent codes on offer. There is no common moral language or framework (with “moral” here meaning “defining the good life”) that rises above a utilitarian ethic of bodily safety, personal autonomy, and the material prosperity that makes this safety and autonomy possible. “Simply put" writes Yuval Levin, “both modern science and modern political philosophy have put the avoidance of pain and the prevention of death at the forefront of our public life."

The religion of Life, as Don Cupitt calls it, is a kind of framework, a kind of moral language. But can Life serve as its own sacred anchor? Is it enough for Life to simply exist, finding its own way, its own path, its own destiny? Can such a framework give meaning and dignity to questions of value, trust, risk, and justice? Can it inform a consensus for education or family, for work, and for our rights and freedoms? We at Cardus don’t believe it can. So might COVID-19 give us the chance to refocus on the fraying ties that bind, and imagine together how to revitalize and reweave these common cords? Or will we all just go back to “business as usual”?

Exiting Covid

Part I

What Have We Learned? The Experts’ Take

“Everyone appeared to know right away what COVID-19 meant,” writes former Ideas producer David Cayley.

Some called it “nature’s wake-up call to a complacent civilization,” others sensed the arrival of a new-deal welfare state, and others “welcomed the chance to test drive a new health-security state,” but “everyone agreed that the world had changed forever” and that a “new normal” was dawning. What amazed Cayley about the coronavirus has been “the extent to which its fearsome reputation has eclipsed and occasionally exceeded its actual effects.”

And yet, taken as reputation or effects, more than a year on and with some sober retrospect, experts agree that some perennial themes have emerged from the virus and from our response to it. The Future of Canada Centre released a handsome report focusing on the transformations in people, industry, and societal systems. How can Canada thrive, it wonders, beyond the year 2030? Even before the pandemic, we were a nation stuck “in neutral.” Bold intervention is needed and is now possible, for equity and inclusion and “future-ready” skills (people), more globally competitive industry and corporate innovation (industry), and a society prepared for the next crisis (societal systems).

C.D. Howe convened an impressive table of academics, business leaders, and policymakers to tackle health policy (crisis, vaccine development, long-term care, and tele-medicine), business (restarting business, opening trade, energy crisis, planning recovery), household income supports (labour markets, wage subsidy, emergency-response benefit, education, and childcare), and monetary policy (Canada emergency business account, backstopping provincial finance, deflation and inflation). Their recommendations were both tactical and transformative, if also technical and immediate (recommendations are dated by the day).

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Montreal Economic Institute, Second Street.org, Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, Canadian Constitution Foundation, and columnist Anthony Furey collaborated to offer advice and predictions about government spending, health reform, economic growth (with less government), a retrospective on what government did well and did poorly, a rights review, and a democratic inventory.

Opinions are not, in short, lacking. In this section, we will survey Canada’s experts, and some experts abroad, to see what leading organizations and thinkers consider as the broad, cross-sector trends that will shape our recovery. These are phrased as questions because they are open trends: Is this where we’re headed? Is it where we want to be headed?

Part II

The Sector-Level Stress Test

High-level, culture-wide trends are one way to assess the pandemic, but we’re also interested in the particular stresses on particular sectors of Canadian society.

How have the trends that our experts identified, as discussed in Part I, manifested themselves in specific ways? Do we see these stresses showing themselves in health care, education, or trade, for example? In this section, we offer our evaluation of how some of the key sectors have fared. Do the trends discussed in Part I show up clearly? And what, if anything, might these trends and sector tests contribute to helping us find our COVID exit?


Is This the Right Exit?

Whether it is a question of value, trust, authority, risk, or justice—or if we drill more specifically into sectors such as family, health care, rights and freedoms, education, or trade—the key conclusion that we draw from our survey is this: While the pandemic did indeed accelerate the stress on many parts of North Atlantic society and culture, nowhere has that stress been more dramatic than on the ties that bind, on the tether that holds all these sectors together, on—in a phrase—our common life.

As we stated in the introduction, the pandemic has shown that at our most basic, the commitment that Canadians hold in common is a kind of pragmatic, biological security. It is a Secular platform on which each person chooses their own vision of the good life. There are no shared commitments beyond a utilitarian ethic of bodily safety, personal autonomy, and material prosperity.

The religion of Life, as Don Cupitt puts it, is a kind of framework, a kind of moral language. But can Life serve as its own sacred anchor? Is it enough for it simply to exist, finding its own way, its own path, its own destiny? How can we determine what values to hold most dear, for example, or which rights to uphold over and above others? What, if anything, is worth living, and therefore worth dying, for, if Life itself is the ultimate aim?

Value, trust, authority, risk, justice, governance—all of these grand themes that our experts so persuasively place at the centre of our pandemic retrospective have in turn, at their centre, the crisis of the ties that bind them all together, that gives them coherence and definition. Yes, some sectors fared better than others, but this crisis has affected all sectors of our common life. What is Life for? Only after we find some consensus on the answer can we begin to address the crises in value, trust, authority, risk, and justice. Or, as the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it, we can answer the question “What am I to do?” only after we answer the prior question “Of what story am I a part?”

This, our Great Untethering, is an old crisis, now being accelerated. But the conclusion that we are drawing here helps to explain the chaos and disagreement as the crisis struck, not just about the prudential judgements that were made but also about the fundamental questions of constitutionality, freedom, authority, and risk, among others. And it helps to explain which arguments won out, and why. It accurately locates the operating moral framework of North Atlantic culture and society: Life.

“This is no modest claim,” argues Yuval Levin, “It asserts for health a place at the very top of the heap of human goods. And it is a view that sits at the heart of the modern turn in philosophy: A form of it is evident in our political thought almost as clearly as in the thinking underlying modern science. Modern politics, too, sees the preservation and protection of life and health as the primary functions of society.”

None of this is to say that we in the North Atlantic world failed to recognize any other goods. Again Levin: “The pursuit of health does not necessarily conflict with other goods and obligations, but in those cases when it does conflict with them it tends to overcome them.” Nor does it mean that no one recognizes an ultimacy beyond Life itself; clearly many do. But it is to say that the common denominator of North Atlantic politics and culture can no longer depend on an ultimacy greater than the civil religion of Life. Life is both the greatest, and the common, good. Life itself—its self-referential actualization, and present-day persistence—is our lowest common denominator. “Present day” is an important addition, because such Secularity, as Charles Taylor terms it, entails a tyranny of the (adult) majority and of the present, what he calls “a pitiless ingratitude toward the past.” Life without voice or vote, especially those of the vulnerable in our society—children, the elderly, the disabled, others—is in far greater danger under this new moral code. And such a conclusion is all the more ironic in that Life ought to give priority to those who are weakest and most in need of it.

A society centred on Life may still be a comfortable one, a rich one, and to a degree, a happy one. But it will almost certainly not be a noble one, or a beautiful one, or a generous one, the kind of life that we might be willing to die for. Argues Levin, “Unbalanced and unmoored from other goods . . . such a regard [for health] can become a vessel for self-absorption and decadence. It can cause us to abandon our commitment to our highest principles, and to mortgage the future to avert present pain.”

Can work and education, trade and family, flourish in such a North Atlantic world in which Life reigns supreme? Has the pandemic given us the opportunity to reassess our common life afresh, to think together about what the ancients would call not Life, but living well? If this is our COVID exit, is it the right exit?

While it [the polis] comes into existence for the sake of life, it exists for the good life.

AristotlePolitics 1252b

We need your input

Where must Canada's focus now turn? Where is Canada going post Covid? Where should Canada be going? How should Cardus contribute? Please get in touch ›

  Michael Van Pelt, Cardus President & CEO

Michael Van Pelt, Cardus President & CEO

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