Political Science as Public Service

Book Review: Canada's COVID: The Story of a Pandemic Moral Panic by Barry Cooper and Marco Navarro-Genie (1 of 2)
Published on February 22, 2024

The Frontier Centre is pleased to publish reviews of Canada’s COVID: The Story of a Pandemic Moral Panic, expanded edition. The reviewers, Rodney Clifton and Jodi Bruhn, have very high praise for this work because it exhaustively demonstrates that the responses by our governments, federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal, created both moral and physical panic among citizens. This book provides helpful guidelines for future pandemics. Our elected officials and their bureaucrats could learn some vital lessons from the book.


In April 2023, David Leis, Vice-President at the Frontier Centre, testified at hearings of the National Citizens Inquiry (NCI). Funded and led entirely by citizens, the Inquiry had a mandate to investigate the harms caused by government responses to COVID-19. Witnesses shared both expertise and personal experiences in long, emotional days of hearings in Canadian eight cities.

Mr. Leis appeared as an expert in public policy. Yet his sorrow was also on display. “[N]ever in the history of, certainly in my lifetime, nor I believe, sadly, in the lifetime of recent memory has there been such a policy disaster,” he stated. The disaster went far beyond policy, extending to basic principles that ought to have guided it, to institutions that ought to have served us but instead turned on us.

How did it happen—and so quickly? The 2023 book by Alberta-based political scientists Barry Cooper and Marco Navarro-Génie offers compelling analyses. Canada’s COVID: The Story of a Pandemic Moral Panic answers a single driving question: Why did no government in Canada change course over the COVID era—despite abundant signals that their chosen path to fight a respiratory virus had not worked?

At base of the obduracy, the authors of this book identify a story. An orthodox “Plague Story” espoused by self-proclaimed health experts and imposed by governments still enjoys widespread public acceptance. Adherents of a second “heterodox” story saw in the COVID measures that Canadians experienced “nothing but repression of citizens, the destruction of what used to be a constitutional regime, and its replacement by a technologically mediated digital despotism or worse.”

The book documents the implementation of the Plague Story, its real-world fallout, and the mounting resistance and repression of adherents of the heterodox narrative.

Earlier this year, I reviewed the full book for the American online magazine Law & Liberty. For this symposium, I treat only the remarkable final chapter. Chapter 7, “The Democratic Politics of Fear” offers crucial insights into how the Plague narrative took hold so thoroughly—as well as the direction of recovery. It addresses at length the fourth player in the moral panic: the public. The public had been “nudged and shaped and corralled into a moral panic by the three smaller groups,” which included media, pseudo-expert “moral entrepreneurs,” and “socially authorized knowers” installed in our core institutions.

At base of the nudging was fear, which all three groups stoked and exploited to implement the Plague Story. Governments in particular used fear to heighten their power. “Their game plan was simplicity itself: induce fear first of all, then promise safety if the population obediently followed instructions.” Fear prompted the public to swallow a new pseudo-scientific lingo. Fear also gave government cover to sideline legislatures, rack up government expenditures beyond wartime levels, and pull off what federal MP Leslyn Lewis called a “socialist coup” paying able-bodied citizens to stay home. Fear—even a palpable pleasure in being very afraid together—allowed governments to introduce mass surveillance and snitching as a civic duty:

The sentimentalism of “saving lives” or rather, the moral inversion of practising the virtue of courage by staying locked up in your house or showing your fellow feeling by staying away from others has come to obscure just about every aspect of both factual and rational truth in our public discourse (347).

But why did the fear take hold?

In some of the book’s most valuable passages, Cooper and Navarro-Génie draw out the essential connection of fear and the modern liberal state. Enlisting Kant, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and Arendt, they help us to understand why most Canadians fell into the moral panic in the first place. For Hobbes, they remind us that fear is the emotion that gives rise to the social contract on which the state is based. For Tocqueville, the democratic state channels, directs, and assuages anxiety—and introduces a numbing conformity. The authors enlist Arendt to show how the Plague Story was erected into a medical ideology that created “a coherent but fictitious world” analogous to twentieth century totalitarian ideologies. Caught up n “covid world,” our governments inflicted magical operations that had devasting effects on the real one.

Very soon, of course, their measures failed—which decreased political legitimacy. For our leaders, though, the public’s docility had already imparted lessons, even the “epiphany” and “political opportunity” that Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland mentioned as she introduced a second COVID era budget. By promising salvation from the threat that they had invoked, our rulers aimed to usher in a full-scale economic transformation. The authors analyse the “open conspiracy” of Klaus Schwab’s The Great Reset as they would any other political pamphlet. They discover a program aiming to move seamlessly from COVID to a new moral panic imposing ruinous measures purporting to save the planet.

Fortunately, the technocratic managers of the COVID crisis were outed as liars and frauds quickly. They also encountered unexpected resistance from real humans, who are not subject to “resets,” but are living, acting initiators in the real world. Yet the COVID crisis tipped the hand of governments. Our next task is a fundamental one:

If COVID-19 was a dress rehearsal for yet another moral panic centred on climate change, perhaps the arguments in this book can help Canadians resist. The alternative to resistance, it seems, is a new model of tyranny, bureaucratic tyranny (366).

Resist or face a bureaucratic tyranny. It is a challenge we need to meet quickly. Chapter 7 itself offers clues on how.

First, we need to take seriously the role of fear in consolidating power, even—perhaps especially—in liberal democracies. To the extent their roots lie in modern rationalism, they entail a peculiar authoritarian dimension reflected in Hobbes and pointed out by Tocqueville. Moral panics provide a pretext for political executives and bureaucracies to increase their power. This danger, it would seem, is especially acute in a state like Canada, which has long faced an inordinate concentration of power in political executives—especially in the offices of prime minister and premiers. Second, we have a state-run health care system, which elevates governments and public health bureaucracies to arbiters of life and death. These are fixable institutional problems—but they first need a clear understanding of why they should be fixed.

Related to this, we need to understand our own liberal tradition of rights and limited government more broadly and affirmatively than as based in the Charter or even in liberal social contract theory. As Mr. Leis pointed out in his NCI testimony, our tradition of limited government is not a recent invention but the result of victories against an overpowerful Crown extending back thousands of years. And that tradition has a basis in spiritual and philosophical experiences of liberty that we need to reclaim as foundational, especially if we want to reform our institutions to reflect those experiences.

Finally, crucially, we need to cultivate courage. This lesson applies especially to our professional classes, which showed themselves to be the most susceptible to the Plague narrative and enthusiastically compliant with COVID measures. Canadians who showed courage threw an unpredicted wrench into the encroaching tyranny. We need a critical mass of such individuals in the future—and we need to win them over as individuals. The most promising path here is to talk openly, publicly, about what happened and why, and why it is worth trying to prevent it from happening again.

For the authors conclude that fear-based governance will return: our courts’ docility has guaranteed it. Which makes this book even more important. The authors are simply doing political science, analysing what happened and speculating on why. But they do so in a context where polite company in this country, still largely taken by the Plague Story, would prefer to forget. In this, the book is a courageous act and a rare public service, for which Canadians can be grateful.


Jodi Bruhn is a published author and policy consultant specializing in Indigenous/Crown relations. Based in Ottawa, she was born, raised, and educated in the Prairies. Jodi has a PhD in political science from the University of Notre Dame and held a graduate fellowship at the University of Munich, where she focused on the analysis of totalitarian dictatorships.

Readers can find Jodi’s latest writing at her new Substack, The Good Resist.  

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