The Rule of Law as an Essential Public Health Service: A Study of Adherence to Covid-19 Protocols

Yoon, Albert | $60,000

Ontario University of Toronto 2021 SSHRC

This project examines the interplay between the rule of law and public health in the context of COVID-19. The actions taken by all levels of government to combat this pandemic including restrictions on movement, assembly, and commerce are extraordinary and unprecedented in Canadian history. Nearly a year into the pandemic, these actions are ongoing, even as vaccinations have begun. While there is widespread agreement within the public health community that these actions are necessary to contain the spread of the virus, their efficacy depend in large part on voluntary and sustained public compliance by the public, which, thus far, has been mixed.

Widespread compliance depends on the rule of law i.e., law’s authority and influence in society to protect rights while constraining certain individual or institutional behaviour and the perceived legitimacy of steps taken by all levels of government. Public confidence in government is particularly important given the time horizons contemplated by most epidemiological models, in which these measures will likely be in place until the rates of infection and hospitalization flatten, and ultimately, until Canada vaccinates a sufficient percentage of the public. Even under the most optimistic projections, this will run into late 2021.

Given COVID-19’s infectious nature, the rule of law has both a substantive (what laws say) and procedural (how laws are enforced) component. Media coverage (Lancet 2020) suggests that public compliance with these measures depend on the public’s perceived clarity, legitimacy, and consistency with the rule of law. Adding to these challenges, government at the federal, provincial, and municipal continually update these measures in response to the latest infection, hospitalization, and mortality statistics.

This project integrates two important disciplines: law and epidemiology. This project examines the iterative process between governmental action and public responses to these orders. We will build a unique dataset comprised of all COVID‑19 related public actions, geographic movement by the public, public health data, and government enforcement data from the months preceding the pandemic to the present. This pandemic presents a unique opportunity to examine how public response to government measures to simultaneously minimize the spread of COVID‑19 while administering the rollout of the vaccine.

We will investigate several of these using multivariable regression analysis using panel observational data. The project involves three parts. First, we will examine the extent to which the public views these governmental measures as consistent with their conception of the rule of law, as either justified, or overbroad. Second, we will examine the effect of different enforcement measures e.g., community policing; issuance of fines on the efficacy of emergency public health measures. Third, we examine the impact of the public’s ability to challenge governmental interventions, through traditional administrative and judicial methods of redress. We anticipate methodological challenges e.g., confounding and unobservable variables, and measurement issues which we will address in our models.

Our project is designed to respond to the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID‑19 pandemic. We can collect data in real time and adapt in response to changing policy interventions, which we anticipate will continue throughout 2021 even as more of the public become vaccinated. Our findings can uncover how the rule of law influences the dynamic public health approach to this pandemic: the efficacy of governmental interventions that ultimately depend on the public’s understand

With funding from the Government of Canada

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