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A man wearing a face mask wheels his wheelchair past a spray-painted wall that reads Wash Your Hands Don't Touch Your Face.
A man wearing a face mask wheels his wheelchair past a spray-painted wall in downtown Vancouver in March 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Partisanship fuels what people with disabilities think about COVID-19 response

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada was touted as fast-acting in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. In March 2020, the federal government restricted travel, initiated lockdowns and enacted a taxable income support program, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, or CERB.

Cross-partisan consensus among Canadian leaders facilitated these COVID-19 countermeasures. Compared to the United States, Canada’s pandemic response seemed rather apolitical.

Public opinion polls throughout 2020 showed that most Canadians held favourable views of the federal government’s response to the pandemic. People’s attitudes varied more when it came to their views of their province’s response. This makes sense since provincial governments differed in how they dealt with social distancing, lockdowns and reopenings. All in all, and in the broadest sense, Canadians felt confident in their leaders in 2020.

But not all Canadians have been affected equally by the pandemic or by policy responses to it.

People with chronic health conditions and disabilities are already a marginalized group that experiences significant employment and financial barriers, as well as obstacles to accessing social and health services. Due to increased social isolation, they also experience significant declines in mental health. These were made worse by the pandemic.

What are the views of members of this group about the federal government’s response to the pandemic and what does this tell us more generally about Canadians’ attitudes about government?

Political views shaped perceptions

In June 2020, we conducted a national survey of people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. We asked them questions about how they thought the government was handling the pandemic.

We found that while disability and health status may indirectly shape views of government, regional and partisan political beliefs were the most important predictors of attitudes.

A woman walks near a sign offering face masks
A woman walks near a sign that offers face masks in the Cornwall Centre in Regina in December 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Bell

About 45 per cent of our respondents had positive views about the federal government response. But we also found attitudes to be more negative among conservatives and those living in the Prairie provinces. Conservative respondents were 26 per cent more likely to have negative attitudes towards COVID-19 policies. The Prairies were the most politically polarized. Far fewer people there reported neutral or positive views.

We dug deeper, using more in-depth qualitative interviews. These revealed that public perceptions are driven by underlying political and social divisions. Conservative respondents especially believed that things like CERB were a waste of taxpayer money — that “Justin [Trudeau] has been throwing money around,” and giving money to those who are undeserving.

Anti-Trudeau comments

They more frequently pointed to what they saw as government overreach, using the pandemic to “encroach on civil liberties.” In that vein, they tied policy responses to “seizing total control,” “unjust and nonsensical gun bans,” and even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s taking a knee at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

As one respondent commented: “It is a disgrace to all my brothers in blue.”

Justin Trudeau takes a knee while wearing a face mask.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes a knee during an anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill in June 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

This really surprised us. We expected most respondents to view the government’s response through the lens of their disabilities or health conditions — a community especially impacted by the crisis. Instead, we saw that partisan views drove their attitudes towards the federal government’s response to COVID-19.

Our findings provide increasing evidence of the broader trends in political polarization among Canadians.

Preliminary research suggests cross-partisanship co-operation among political leaders doesn’t neatly translate into a similar consensus among the Canadian public, including those with disabilities or chronic health conditions.

Rather, polarization along traditional left-right divides over government spending and who is most “deserving” of government benefits was quite apparent.

It illustrates the importance of not treating people with disabilities and chronic health conditions as either an apolitical or homogeneously political group.

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