Understanding Canadians’ responses to government policy restrictions during the COVID‑19 pandemic
When COVID‑19 struck, governments in Canada and around the world moved to mitigate the spread of the virus by shuttering businesses, closing schools, and restricting gatherings and individual movement. The scale of government intervention into the daily lives of Canadians has been among the most significant in living memory. The Public Policy Forum (PPF)—a leading nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank—seeks new, actionable insights into how Canadians have responded to these restrictions. Its goal is to share these insights through its network of public, private, and nonprofit sector decision makers—with the aim of equipping them to better steer Canada through the current pandemic and to prepare the country for the next major public health crisis.
Creating the knowledge sought by PPF requires an updated approach to how scholars have studied the pandemic. To date, researchers have tended either to examine the effects of policy on aggregate health outcomes, or to investigate the relationship between individuals’ attitudes and behaviours at particular points in time. The central objective of the proposed project is to create a more complete picture of how Canadians have responded to government policy restrictions by integrating these two approaches—that is, by combining geographically-nuanced measures of government policy with individual-level survey data spanning the length of the pandemic.
To do this, Peter Loewen—a political behaviour and public policy scholar—proposes to partner with PPF. Loewen and his lab have collected one of the most extensive survey datasets of Canadians’ COVID-related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours: 73,000 interviews (and counting) from March 2020 to present. Through this new project, PPF and Loewen will create a dataset that measures Canadian provincial- and local-level policy restrictions on multiple dimensions from March 2020 through May 2022. To our knowledge, this will be the most comprehensive dataset available of the policy restrictions that provincial and municipal governments have used to combat the spread of the virus. The new policy dataset will then be integrated with the existing survey dataset: opening up key avenues for the partners to study how the actions (and inactions) of governments have influenced Canadians’ COVID-related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours.
The research will focus on three main individual-level behaviours and attitudes: social distancing practices, government approval, and trust in experts. Understanding how each of these have been shaped by government restrictions is crucial to helping decision makers in PPF’s network learn how best to communicate and maintain support for future public health measures. At the same time, the proposed research will allow the partners to contribute to key social science questions such how citizens judge the performance of their governments, how they navigate complex federal systems, and how institutions can enhance public trust.
The proposed project will deliver: a suite of four academic papers; a new website featuring a dashboard that will allow decision makers, researchers, and the general public to access the data in an engaging and customizable manner; working sessions with policy makers and journalists to maximize the dissemination of the research findings; and a public policy report—published to PPF’s website—that draws together the project’s conclusions for a wider policy audience. At the same time, the project will engage a total of twelve undergraduate students, seven graduate students, and one postdoctoral fellow—providing training, mentorship, and research opportunities to the next generation of scholars.