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Paz GomezIn Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and elsewhere, churches are pushing back against COVID-19 lockdowns, staying open and advising people to practise civil disobedience. Such behaviour must be replicated across Canada.

The draconian pandemic response from the provincial and federal governments has paved the way for a permanently expanded state. Imposing strict restrictions on the economy a year after reporting the first coronavirus case in Canada – a developed nation with a vaccination program underway – serves no purpose but to keep power centralized.

A Toronto church is arguing that the lockdowns – in addition to crippling the economy and undermining mental health and individual liberties – are unconstitutional. Rightly so: the restrictions infringe upon freedom of worship and freedom of association.

On Dec. 24, the Waterloo-based Trinity Bible Chapel published a letter encouraging church members to attend services. The Reopening Ontario Act limits attendance at religious events to 10 people indoors and outdoors. Infringement could incur a $10,000 fine.

For Trinity’s senior pastor, Jacob Reaume, the church community has become a refuge for hundreds of people amid the pandemic. The church offers hope to those mourning the loss of a loved one, facing the despair of isolation and suffering from economic hardship brought on by the COVID-19 shutdowns.

The Toronto International Celebration Church requested an injunction to suspend the limits on religious worship. The Canadian Constitution Foundation participated in the legal challenge with an intervenor status, pleading that lockdown rules offend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and “the fundamental right to religious freedom.”

The Superior Court of Justice in Ontario denied the injunction, claiming that the risk to public health outweighs the religious group’s petition. The burden of proof is on those imposing the lockdowns to demonstrate their efficacy. A recent international study published in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation found that lockdowns have yet to generate clear slowing of the spread compared to voluntary, less drastic measures.

Closing public and private spaces have elevated economic and social costs compared to social distancing and wearing masks. According to Nils Haug, Lukas Geyrhofer and Alessandro Londei, professors at the Medical University of Vienna, intrusive government policies such as lockdowns can affect “individuals’ behaviour, mental health and social security.” In the same vein, British journalist Matt Ridley argues lockdowns cause job losses, bankruptcies, social disintegration, mental illness and even deaths.

The successful containment of the coronavirus in South Korea and Taiwan proves that reducing community transmission and resuming usual activities is possible. Officials should seek a prudent balance, as opposed to disproportionate impositions.

Intrusive measures to contain the COVID-19 spread have negatively impacted Canada’s economy and its citizens’ mental health. A survey conducted by the Canadian Mental Health Association in mid-September 2020 revealed a spike in suicidal ideation among Canadians since the onset of the pandemic. While some are worried about their finances or job security, others suffer from emotional and physical abuse at home.

Authorities must propose alternatives to lockdowns that better suit the population’s needs and are conducive to mental and economic health. Manitoba, for instance, was one of the first Canadian provinces to reopen its economy in early May. By the end of the month, the province had 17 active cases and reported no new cases in three days. Similarly, on July 9, Manitoba’s government reported nine straight days of no new COVID-19 cases.

Before entering into another strict lockdown in early November, the province had found other ways to reduce the coronavirus spread effectively. These include testing people without symptoms, voluntary quarantine measures for workers in the trucking industry and replacing cross-border restrictions with information checkpoints at provincial borders.

In mid-December, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business reported that around one-third of Ontario businesses wouldn’t survive extended lockdowns across the province. That was before second-wave lockdowns and economic optimism was gradually picking up. At the start of 2021, the Bank of Canada reported growing business confidence.

It fell victim to new, misguided impositions. Last year, various businesses such as hairdressers, gyms, restaurants and movie theatres invested in adjustments to comply with biosecurity regulations; now they’re forced to remain closed.

Brian Ferguson, Philip Cross and Rob Wildeboer of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute anticipate tough economic and social consequences from lockdowns, including government higher deficits, corporate bankruptcies and increased unemployment. Cross emphasizes the importance of leveraging the private sector when thinking about long-term economic recovery.

While governments have been eager to increase spending, they’ve been reticent to consider the economic consequences for businesses. A weak private sector will take its toll in the long run with lower productivity, slower economic growth and lower tax contributions.

If governments continue to rely on cash transfers and other unproductive measures, the crisis will worsen and jobs will vanish. The public debt will continue to grow, creating local nanny states that seek to control ever more of our liberties.

Authorities may have chosen to ignore that markets – not relief or aid packages – provide the long-term solutions for economic recovery through job creation and investment. Canadians, then, should challenge the misguided policies that officials enact on behalf of COVID-19 containment.

Current and future policies should seek the resumption of normal social and economic life.

Paz Gomez is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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