In his daily media briefings, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken pains to reassure Canadians that all will be well. “Don’t worry. We will all get through this together,” is the message he puts out, and the message is endlessly repeated by others. Don’t worry about paying your rent or your mortgage—the government is developing solutions for you. Don’t worry about losing your job—the government will replace your income. Don’t worry about your business—the government will provide loans and grants and tax rebates to see you through. Don’t worry about being short of money—the government is sending extra money your way. Don’t worry about getting sick with COVID-19 or anything else—the government will provide the hospital beds, the equipment, and the human resources to treat you.
And there you have the promise of the modern welfare state—the government will solve all your problems.
The reality is that government can’t solve all problems. There are economic forces and social forces and diseases and natural disasters that are beyond any government’s control. A government can (and should) mitigate the effects of a disaster, but often it can’t prevent the disaster or completely shield its citizens from the negative consequences.
While reassurances might calm public fears and prevent panic, promising that everything will be fine will not adequately prepare us for what might lie ahead. It will not steel us for the sacrifices many of us will have to make. It will take courage for workers in essential services to keep working at the risk of their own lives; bland assurances will not work for them.
The truth is that we are not all going to get through this together. We are not all going to come out the other side unscathed. Some of us are going to die. More of us are going to be sick. Some of us are going to lose our jobs, permanently. Some of us are going to be short of food and other necessities. Some of us are going to lose our houses and our homes. Some of us are going to lose our businesses. Some of us are going to lose our savings and our pensions. There will be strains on our social fabric. Many of us will suffer from isolation, boredom, poverty, depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, and mental illness. Although not as serious or as longlasting as some crises our ancestors faced, this crisis will have costs greater than any government can fix.
Does this mean that we should not all pull together to get through this, to love and help each other, to practice self-isolation and social distancing, to minimize the damage as much as possible? Absolutely not. We should do all of those things and more. We should do all we can to help and to alleviate suffering. That is the only way any of us will get through this at all.
But we should go into this with our eyes open. There will be suffering and pain and loss. We are not all going to get through this unscathed. Sacrificial love will be needed. In another crisis, a much more serious crisis, Winston Churchill promised the British people: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy?…It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny…You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival…I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail…I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’”