Ep.52: When Your Boss is an Algorithm
With Emily Guendelsberger and Sean O’Brady
The campaign against COVID-19 is far from over. Cutting through the noise around vaccine deliveries and administration, it remains clear that it will be near the end of the summer, at least, before the majority of Canadians have received a complete regimen of a COVID-19 vaccine. If brand hesitancy increases, it may be even longer. Can we hold on until then?
The strategy that has carried Canada this far may be enough to get through the summer months and into the fall. But is there consensus on and support for this strategy? Among the public, yes.
In what follows, I review data collected by the Media Ecosystem Observatory (MEO), in partnership with the Public Policy Forum, which examines support for both governments’ economic strategy and for public health restrictions. Comparing levels of support in early April 2021 to June 2020 (the earliest date for which we have data on all measures), I find a public largely unchanged in their support for Canada’s COVID-19 strategy.
There is a COVID-19 consensus. Broadly, Canadians agree on:
This report relies on data collected through the MEO, a collaborative effort of three research sites—the Centre for Democracy, Society, and Technology, the Social Dynamics Lab at McGill University, and PEARL at the University of Toronto. MEO was born out of the Digital Democracy Project, of which the Public Policy Forum was an early funder and champion. Since the third week of March 2020, MEO has conducted more than 87,000 interviews of Canadians over 42 waves of data collection, all focused on the social and political contexts and implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. A longer description of our research strategy is available at www.mediaecosystem.com.
The data presented here were collected in the ninth wave, from June 15-18, 2020, the 11th wave, from June 28 to July 6, 2020, and the 42nd wave, from April 8-14, 2021. In each respective wave, there are 2,552, 2,495 and 1,452 respondents, balanced within wave by age, gender and region. Respondents were recruited by Dynata to complete a survey hosted on the Qualtrics platform. Iterative proportionally fitted weights are generated using levels from the Canadian census and are applied to our data within each wave.
There have been, broadly speaking, two parts to Canada’s approach to mitigating COVID-19. First, federal and provincial governments have rolled out generous and far-reaching income support schemes. These served several purposes, including maintaining economic activity and bolstering consumer confidence. Not least, they enabled individuals to comply with social distancing and other restrictions which may have been more difficult if under greater economic strain.
Second, governments have adopted a broad number of measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. These have been far from perfect. Any comparison of our leaky border to that of Australia or New Zealand, for example, makes it clear that more restrictions on foreign travel are possible. But for the most part, governments have been willing to engage in a mix of closures and restrictions which have at key times contained the spread of the virus.
This two-part strategy has not been an unqualified success, but it has staved off much worse potential outcomes. And, anyway, it does appear to be the strategy we have. Rapid testing appears illusive, European-style lockdowns are unlikely. Airport limos will continue to carry travellers over the border from Buffalo.
If this is the strategy we run with for the next six months, will the public at least support it? The short answer is yes. Despite serious COVID-19 fatigue, and despite high-profile (and well-covered) protests against various governments, the majority of Canadians are broadly supportive of both parts of our COVID-19 strategy.
It appears that little has changed since concern over COVID-19 was measured in June 2020. Indeed, compared to then, the share of those who express that they are very concerned about COVID-19 has grown 6.8 percentage points, from 35.5 to 42.3. It is important to say that this concern is well-rooted in the empirical reality of COVID-19. The combined risk of a highly infectious and dangerous virus should lead to high levels of concern.
Table 1: Concern over COVID-19
|Wave 9 – June 2020 (%)||Wave 42 – April 2021 (%)||Change (%)|
|Not at all||6.0||5.9||-0.1|
Governments in Canada have pursued an effectively two-pronged approach to fighting COVID-19, at least pre-vaccine deployment. The combination of generous income supports with public activity restrictions was intended to maintain economic activity while reducing opportunity for the virus to spread. To understand whether citizens support this approach, we have since June 2020 been asking questions about a large number of specific policy measures (in Wave 9 of our study). We soon after added a number of questions about support for the federal government’s income support programs (Wave 11 of our study).
The policy actions we measured support for are:
Table 2 shows levels of support for these policies in June 2020 and in April 2021. There two important patterns to note.
First, beginning in June of 2020, there was wide variation in support for various policies, but the majority of policies (six) were supported by a majority of the population. This is still largely the case in April 2021, though one fewer policy (closing schools) is supported by a majority. In June 2020, the average respondent chose 5.1 policies out of 10, and 45% chose five policies or more. In April 2021, the average respondent chose 4.9 policies, and 43% chose five policies or more. There is a mixed bag here; not a single policy supported by all respondents.
Second, five policies have declined in support, while five have increased. The two policies which have declined the most in support are closing parks and public spaces (23 percentage points less supported) and closing schools (12 percentage points less supported). The two policies that have increased most in support are making mask use mandatory (10 percentage points more supported) and limiting the size of public gatherings (nine percentage points more supported). While the relative benefits of closing schools are an open debate, changes in support for other policies is largely in line with scientific best practice. In short, Canadians are following the science.
At the topline, then, Canadians continue to support a mix of policies restricting activities at the rate they did in the early summer of 2020.
Table 2: Support for policy measures in June 2020 and April 2021
|Policy measure||Wave 9 – June 2020 (%)||Wave 42 – April 2021 (%)||Difference (%)|
|Close non-essential businesses||47.6||42.7||-4.9|
|Close parks and public spaces||49.4||26.6||-22.8|
|Close government services||15.3||16.4||1.1|
|Close Canada for non-essential travel, including the Canada-U.S. border||74.6||71.2||-3.4|
|Limit public gatherings to five people||57.6||66.8||9.2|
|Mandatory use of contact tracing smartphone application||21.1||25.6||4.5|
|Mandatory quarantine of sick people||75.2||73.5||-1.7|
|Mandatory quarantine of at-risk population||51.3||51.4||0.1|
|Mandatory use of cloth masks in public||60.6||71.4||10.8|
|None of the above||4.5||6.6||2.1|
The economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic have been massive, but not nearly as great as if governments had not taken extensive action in the form of income supports, wage subsidies, rent assistance, and other measures. This second part of the COVID-19 strategy is also largely supported by citizens.
To begin, it is important to note that the economic threat of COVID-19 has largely subsided. Businesses have found creative ways to adapt. Employees have in great measure shifted their work to home. And, as importantly, expectations that the pandemic would bring about economic devastation have largely subsided.
This is reflected in our data, in Table 3. When asked in June 2020 whether they thought their job was at risk due to COVID-19, 50% of respondents answered yes. By April 2021, this number was halved to 25%. Of course, one in four Canadians fearing job loss is remarkable, and is still cause for ongoing concern. But compared to a year ago, it marks a sea change.
Despite improved personal economic forecasts, a majority of Canadians still support high levels of government support to citizens and businesses. To gauge support for government economic support schemes, we have consistently asked respondents three questions. First, how they evaluate governments’ level of support to individuals. Second, how they evaluate governments’ level of support to businesses. Third, the amount that they believe that government should provide to citizens on a monthly basis.
In Table 4, we see that fewer Canadians believe the government is providing the right amount of support to individuals. While in June 2020, only 18% of Canadians thought the government was giving too much to individuals, that number has now grown to 31%.
Nonetheless, a majority of citizens (69%) still believe that government is providing just the right amount of support or even too little to individuals.
The story is largely the same with businesses. While there was less public support for business supports in June 2020, the majority of Canadians believed then that the government was providing just the right amount of support or even too little. This is still the case, though the share believing that government provides too much support to business has grown from 32% to 41% in April 2021.
Finally, Canadians have not changed their views on the raw amount that government should be providing to citizens on a monthly basis. We query Canadians on the amount the government should provide, using a range from $0 to $3000. When measured in June 2020, the average amount was $1614. This grew (insignificantly) in April 2021 to $1630. The percentage of respondents choosing $0 was 3.5% in June 2020 and 3.1% in April 2021. The share choosing $3000 (the maximum amount available in the question) was 5.6% in June 2020 and 6.5% in April 2021.
Table 3: Belief that job is at risk
|Level of support||Wave 11 – Late June 2020 (%)||Wave 42 – April 2021 (%)||Difference (%)|
Table 4: Support to individuals
|Level of support||Wave 11 (%)||Wave 42 (%)||Difference (%)|
|Just the right amount of support||54.1||46.0||-8.1|
Table 5: Support to businesses
|Level of support||Wave 11 (%)||Wave 42 (%)||Difference (%)|
|Just the right amount of support||51.3||44.1||-7.2|
Table 6: Preferred monthly income support to Canadians
|Level of support||Wave 11||Wave 42||Difference|
|Percent choosing $0||3.5||3.1||-0.4%|
|Percent choosing $3000||5.6||6.5||0.9%|
Infection rates are increasing and deaths are mounting in a third wave of COVID-19. Vaccine supply and administration remain below expectations. There is no saying there will not be a fourth wave in the fall. Threads at the seams sometimes look to be breaking.
Altogether, it can seem that we are not winning our fight against COVID-19. But underneath this remains an important consensus. Canadians share a concern about COVID-19, one that has in fact grown since the early summer of 2020. They support government restrictions which will reduce the spread of the virus, and they support economic supports which will make it easier for individuals to weather this storm. For all the reporting on non-compliance, Canadians are as supportive of government efforts against COVID-19 as they were 10 months ago. We should not mistake fatigue and frustration for quitting.