by Levi Minderhoud
ARPA as an organization talks about sphere sovereignty a lot. Sphere sovereignty, famously articulated by Abraham Kuyper, implies that there are many spheres of authority in society, such as the state, the church, and the family. Each of these spheres has different God-given responsibilities, jurisdictions, and means of accomplishing their tasks. Reformed Christians often criticize the state for encroaching on the sovereignty of other spheres in society.
We also frequently mention the rule of law. The rule of law implies the government’s powers are limited to those granted to it by properly enacted laws. The rule of law is designed to prevent governments from becoming tyrannical, punishing people arbitrarily, or exempting itself from rules that apply to everyone else.
In light of COVID-19, many Reformed Christians are asking whether the state is acting appropriately. In other words, are governments abiding by sphere sovereignty and the rule of law?
In this blog post, I want to answer this question in my home province of British Columbia. Of the four most populous Canadian provinces, British Columbia has had one of the best experiences with COVID-19. At the time of writing (April 24), British Columbia has the lowest number of absolute cases (1,824), lowest number of cases per capita (36 cases per 100,000 people), the second lowest absolute number of deaths (94), and the second lowest number of deaths per capita (1.8 deaths per 100,000 people). Indeed, out of all the Canadian provinces, American states, and western European countries with more than 5 million people, British Columbia has the lowest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita.
So, it seems we’re doing something right. But is the government of British Columbia responding to COVID-19 in a way that is consistent with sphere sovereignty and the rule of law?
British Columbia’s measures to fight the coronavirus
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, British Columbia declared a public health emergency. A public health emergency gives the Provincial Health Officer, in this case Bonnie Henry, special powers, notably the power to issue orders that have the force of law. These orders will remain in effect until the government declares the public health emergency to be over.
What provincial health orders have been issued? According to their website, the Office of the Provincial Health Officer has issued exactly 11 orders as of April 24. Because a few of these orders modify previous orders or introduced new restrictions on the same class of people (e.g. health care workers), these 11 public health orders can be summed up in less than 11 points:
- No gatherings of over 50 people
- Businesses that serve food and drinks (and farmers’ markets) may only offer take-out and must employ social distancing measures
- All foreign travellers returning to British Columbia must provide provincial authorities with basic information and self-quarantine for 14 days (essential workers may be exempt)
- Health care professionals and institutions must take particular precautions
- All personal service providers (e.g. hair, skin, and nail salons) must be closed
- Agricultural, forestry, and resource sector work camps must take particular precautions
British Columbia has also declared a provincial state of emergency, which gives the government of British Columbia (Premier John Horgan and his cabinet) special powers. The provincial government has used this authority to close public schools, close provincial parks, and discourage interprovincial travel.
But what about calls for physical (or social) distancing, to stay home, or to shutter businesses? What about the trending #socialdistancing? How do they fit into British Columbia’s regulatory regime?
This is the beauty of British Columbia’s response to COVID-19. Most of these generic calls for social distancing by the provincial are voluntary. Just like travel or weather advisories, these measures are not legally binding. They are simply suggestions – albeit, very strong suggestions that everyone should seriously consider – by the provincial government, by social influencers, and by our neighbours to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Put another way, our culture rather than our government is responsible for the widespread pressure to socially distance.
(Municipal governments are a different matter, however. Some municipal governments, such as Vancouver, have legally enforceable social distancing measures. Residents of British Columbia should not forget to abide by these municipal measures.)
Evaluating the British Columbian Government’s Response
The provincial government and provincial health officer are primarily relying on people to regulate their own actions, rather than imposing stringent restrictions of their own. Churches may still hold services with up to 50 people. Most non-essential businesses are allowed to remain open. If churches decide not to hold services or businesses decide to close, they are doing so out of concern for their neighbours or economic pressures; it is not because the government is forcibly closing them.
The response in other Canadian jurisdictions has been very different. The Albertan government voted to give itself the power to create new orders and penalties without the approval of the legislature. Ontario has mandated that all “non-essential” businesses must close. The Quebec government is not allowing gatherings of more than 2 people. The federal government attempted to give itself the ability to spend money without any parliamentary approval for a year and a half. Many of these measures begin to infringe on the sovereignty of other spheres in society or violate the rule of law.
In my opinion, unlike these other jurisdictions, the provincial government and provincial health officer in British Columbia have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in an effective but measured manner. During states of emergency, governments understandably stretch the boundaries of sphere sovereignty and the rule of law to their limits. British Columbia to date has restrained from crossing these regular boundaries and refrained from exercising the significant powers that a state of emergency provides. In many other Canadian jurisdictions, governments have ignored sphere sovereignty and rule of law, opting instead for state sovereignty and the rule of men.
British Columbia has not underestimated the threat of COVID – the province was one of the first to implement restrictions. But, they also have not overestimated the threat either – the province is not shutting down vast sections of the economy or forbidding people to leave their homes. Factors such as a relatively low number of COVID cases, an experienced provincial health officer, and the early implementation of preventative measures have contributed to the government’s restraint. Even with all these advantages, the government of British Columbia deserves applause for their measured approach to COVID-19. They have trusted people to act responsibly throughout this pandemic and avoided shutting down large sections of the economy or banning small gatherings of people. For a government with an ideological bent towards state-ism, this restraint is all the more remarkable.
If you live in British Columbia, consider sending a note of encouragement and thanks to your MLA, health minister, and premier for their balanced management of this crisis. If you live outside British Columbia or wish to write to your federal MP, encourage your representative to consider more measured ways to combat COVID-19. And, continue to keep all your elected officials in prayer during these challenging times.