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Governing during a pandemic

The numbers are staggering. COVID-19 has infected people in 212 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. More than 13 million people have been infected, and more than 574,000 have died, according to the World Health Organization.

Cover of the book Vulnerable: The Law, Policy & Ethics of COVID-19

Vast changes to our home lives, social interactions, government functioning, and relations between countries have swept through the world in a few short months. Two Queen’s experts have joined a variety of other authors and, in just eight short weeks, were able to collaborate on a new book that confronts some of the vulnerabilities and interconnectedness that have been made visible by the pandemic.

The book, titled Vulnerable: The Law, Policy & Ethics of COVID-19, was co-edited by Jane Philpott, Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences at Queen’s University, along with three professors from the University of Ottawa, and one from King’s College London .  

The edited volume analyzes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and includes 43 chapters and features over 70 authors, including Queen’s University Law Professor Gregoire Webber, Canada Research Chair in Public Law and Philosophy of Law.

“My invitation to participate in the project came from Dr. Philpott directly,” says Dr. Webber. “She and I worked together on a number of files when she was Minister of Health and I was Legal Affairs Advisor to the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.”

Webber’s chapter is entitled The Duty to Govern and the Rule of Law during an Emergency. He examines how, during the pandemic, members of the executive and legislative branches of governments around the world retreated while members of the executive branch assumed greater responsibilities. The question is, it is justified, and what is the duty on those exercising authoritative power to return to the normal situation as soon as circumstances allow.

“Even though forecasts for the COVID-19 pandemic range from the medium to long term, there is every reason to resist concluding that extraordinary powers of government are a new normal,” says Dr. Webber. “In situations between normal and exceptional, extraordinary powers may need to be maintained, but those with responsibility to rule should seek to reestablish normal order where it is possible.”

As an accomplished physician, educator, and former federal cabinet minister, Dean Philpott brings an important health care perspective to the book. She recently returned to the front lines to battle the COVID-19 pandemic in the Greater Toronto Area, and was named the province’s special advisor on the new Ontario Health Data Platform to help better track the virus and determine who is most at risk.

“COVID-19 is both a public health crisis and an urgent call to action on social justice. With the focus on vulnerability, it is also an opportunity for transformative policy and law reforms,” says Dean Philpott.

Together, the collection of essays provides new insights on how countries should aim to govern in a pandemic, and what lessons must be learned to help inform upcoming recovery plans, whether they pertain to public health policy, social equity, or the economy.

The authors of the collection say they hope COVID-19 will force us to deeply reflect on how we govern and set our policy priorities to include everyone.

Vulnerable: The Law, Policy and Ethics of COVID-19 is available in July both free of charge via open access and in print form through the University of Ottawa Press