Not quite ready to embrace Phase 2

(May 28, 2020)

I WISH I could share the enthusiasm of those who are now happily booking haircuts, eating in restaurants and making plans to visit with friends and families.

My hair has not been this long since I was a teenager, it would be nice to share that home-cooking load with a chef, and I miss being able to sit around and just visit with people.

But I can’t. A Facebook meme shared last week sticks in my head: “Relaxing restrictions doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. It means there is now room for you in the ICU.”

Ouch. And then that famous tagline from Jaws 2 (1978) surfaces in my memory: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”

OK, maybe I am over-thinking all of this. So I asked myself the blunt question, which no one has really asked our public health officials — the question for which Premier Brian Pallister needs a good answer before opening the doors to Phase 2 on June 1:

“What has changed from March 28 to May 28?”

Remember March? The frantic closing of everything, the suspending of in-class education as the educational system was shut down in a few days and students (and teachers) dispatched to their homes? Those restaurants I like simply closed, along with the churches, the hair salons — everything except liquor and cannabis stores, the new essential services to pacify the population as we watched jobs and entire industries shutter, perhaps for good? When professional sports just stopped? When tourism was reduced to “How quickly can I get home?”

We were told there were good reasons to do these things, to shelter in place, to avoid contact with anyone we didn’t live with, and as we watched the body count rise elsewhere in the world, it wasn’t hard to be convinced it was a good idea, whatever else happened.

Sixty days later, is it really safe to go back in the water? By fluke of geography and timing, Manitoba dodged the initial wave — the advantage of having a later (and thus cancelled) spring break, and not being a tourist destination in February for anyone sane enough to travel.

There will be a second wave, we are told — and if other pandemic patterns hold, it will be worse than the first, especially if it is later in the fall, when flu season starts.

What has changed? We still have no vaccine (if there is going to be one, it could be a year away from mass distribution). We have learned how best to treat people in intensive care, to improve their chance of survival. We might have enough PPE now for those in front-line roles … but it will be harder to identify who is front-line as society opens up again. The extra ventilators are on order, and the new Canadian design might help improve their delivery.

Yes, we know more about the virus, and have a better idea of who is at increased risk. We know more about how it spreads, and that, while it is highly contagious, it is less contagious than it could be. We know people who contract the virus can die, but fewer will die than with other, more deadly, pandemic diseases.

We also know most people who contract the virus will recover, though there are troubling questions about serious long-term health damage.

What we still don’t know, however, is how many asymptomatic people are carriers. We don’t know what makes some people — of any age — more susceptible to getting the virus, or why some people get very sick, very quickly, and others shrug it off in a couple of days, like a cold or the flu. We don’t know if it will mutate, again, and what those potential mutations could mean.

We know people should wear masks, to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus. We know social distancing and not spending a long time in a poorly ventilated space with others reduces risk, too. We have always known the importance of washing our hands — and now are actually doing it, for a change.

But is it safe to go back in the water? Are we making that decision for good public-health reasons, or only because of economics? Or just because we are going stir-crazy?

What is clear is that leaving our bubble — for any reason — involves a risk we have never considered before, especially if you have health conditions, or are older.

I don’t know if I would recover in a couple of days, or if I would be fighting for my life in ICU within a week. Or when I spread it to my family, what would happen to them.

So, I really don’t think much has changed since March.

Please tell me I’m wrong — my barber wants to hear that, too.

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Pallister’s ‘bucket list’ of irritations

(May 20, 2020)

I wrote the first words of this column as the sun rose over the Red River on Manitoba’s 150th birthday.

After bemoaning the fact the Snowbirds did not swing north of the city during the local leg of their now-interrupted inspiration tour, it was then back to life in the midst of a pandemic.

At heart, like all activists, I am an optimist. You have to be, because there are always lots of reasons to quit, as you listen to the voices of those who tell you it is hopeless, or pointless or futile.

So, last week, I hoped we would see some sign of Pallister’s plan to mark the province’s sesquicentennial, some blueprint for Manitoba’s future that showed the collective wisdom of our political leaders in a time of crisis.

Instead of a plan, however, it seems Premier Brian Pallister has an agenda — a personal agenda, his own “bucket list” of irritations before he hands off to a new leader just in time for the Progressive Conservative Party to face Manitobans at the polls in 2023 (or sooner).

Bloated civil service, propped up by nasty unions? Check. Post-secondary institutions, where people do very little except belly-ache for more money? Check. Environmental organizations that keep telling me the government is not doing enough for the planet or the future? Check. Manitoba Hydro, which just won’t roll over and die? Check.

All of this, of course, is ostensibly to provide more money for health care — but then, in the same breath, Pallister gifted seniors $200 each ($45 million) and dropped another $500 million worth of promises into construction. That $360,000 cut from the budgets of Green Action Centre, Manitoba-Eco-Network and Climate Change Connection — which were told “the fact of the matter is, all of us are in this together, and that includes advocacy groups” — is a long way from even being nickels in that scenario.

Calling them “advocacy groups” also misrepresents most of the work they do, from ecological education in schools and working on sustainable transportation to establishing the composting service the city (and province) continues to dodge. But silencing them eliminates awkward questions, asked on behalf of average citizens left out in the cold, that this premier would also prefer to dodge. Check.

For younger Manitobans, facing unemployment this summer and yet wanting to return to school in the fall, there is the promise of a wage subsidy — as long as there are employers with jobs for students, and who have the cash to float that $5,000 advance until the government pays up in the fall. Publicity that will cost little or nothing? Check.

Then $10 million for summer Green Team funding for students — with the irony that many sponsoring organizations (such as churches or community groups) are now closed or reliant on those environmental “advocacy” groups for organization, resources and support. Vaguely green gesture, that again will cost little? Check.

So, here we are. Hard to be an optimist for Manitoba’s 151st year, isn’t it?

I have confessed this before, but the only political party to which I have ever belonged was the Progressive Conservative Party. Granted, it was a long time ago, back when — in Manitoba, especially — you could be both progressive and conservative without being a walking oxymoron.

As a young person, I was proud of what the Progressive Conservatives were doing — at least, until the Reform wind blew from the west and Alberta’s Social Credit ideology took over. Like many other young people I knew at the time, I left, and have never really found a place since I could call home.

I think that progressive element is still out there in rural areas, among the people who vote for the PC Party in Manitoba, but whose personal lives, in their communities and in the wider world, reflect values that support their neighbour and help others in need, ahead of ideology and budget cuts.

I propose, to those readers who regularly get financial requests from the party, that they reconsider where their donations should go at the moment. As the premier says, “We are all in this together” — and right now, the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba does not need a war chest. It needs a wound chest, or it will not deserve re-election.

So politely refuse the opportunity to give more money to the PC Party — and tell them instead it will be going to the food banks, the theatre and music groups, the social services in your community, the environmental groups — all of which are suffering and have not made it onto the premier’s agenda, except as targets.

For the seniors who can afford it, top things up with the $200 you didn’t expect.

Premier Pallister makes it clear he won’t be forced to do the right thing — so it’s time for the progressive members of the PC Party to do some damage control of their own.

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Unsung heroes make fight winnable

(May 8, 2020)

Seventy-five years ago, my grandfather celebrated the end of the war in Europe with his unit in Holland.

In the history of heroes written about those who served in the Second World War, he was less than a footnote. He did not see combat. His medals included none for bravery or heroism, just the “I wuz there” set that everyone in the services received.

He was a mechanic with the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who kept the engines running and the tank tracks working, no matter what.

It is easy to forget people like him, in the midst of the heroic stories of risk, danger and sacrifice that we tell to our children. There was no drama, no movie-worthy moments, in the job he did — just dirty, unrelenting work, under difficult conditions, without anyone taking notice or offering applause.

But without him and his mates, it would have been a long walk from the beaches of Normandy. Without him and others like him, doing equally invisible jobs, there would have been no VE-Day celebrations on May 8, and the heroic sacrifices we honour today might all have been made in vain.

In our pandemic year, we are facing a similar situation.

The medical heroes are obvious — the doctors and, especially, the nurses, who are on the front lines, treating patients in hospitals. Then the researchers, battling the virus in laboratories to produce a treatment or vaccine.

But behind them all, there is a whole army of people like my grandfather, without whose daily hard, dirty and unrelenting work everything those heroes hope to accomplish would fall apart.

So I am glad to see the growing recognition of everybody involved — not to make the doctors, nurses and researchers less heroic, but to remind society of those people whose efforts are just as crucial but much less visible.

That list of essential services and the people who provide them grows daily, as the veneer of our society gets stripped away by the grim reality of the pandemic.

The supply chain that is the subject of academic debate is mostly made of people, from those who grow, produce and process our food, to the ones who load and drive the trucks, to the ones who stock the shelves and the cashiers who still greet us with a smile. It’s the child-care workers, who love and care for children so their parents can do these other jobs, the delivery and postal workers who bring things to our doors so we don’t have to risk leaving home.

As we watch the pandemic tragedies unfold, consider the janitors, cleaners and caregivers in the nursing homes and hospitals, who do their work unnoticed — and the disastrous consequences for them and for the elderly residents when there are too few staff or too little protective equipment.

Because of the pandemic, anyone who has been paying attention has been forced to reconsider the difference between what they want and what they need, what is essential and what is a luxury. We once easily tossed off phrases like “I’m dying for a haircut,” or a drink, or a hamburger, without thinking — at least until now — that such an outcome could actually be true.

COVID-19 has made us realize that no matter how careful we might be ourselves, our lives (and the lives of people we love) could depend on the thoughtfulness and personal hygiene of strangers.

We have also had nearly two months to consider the social value of the jobs people do — what they are really worth, in terms of what society is willing to pay. I have to admit grinding my teeth while listening to earnest bank executives on television or reading smarmy “Dear Cardholder” emails from credit agencies, telling me how much they care.

In this pandemic year, financial institutions will be the only ones (apart from medical gear and cleaning supply companies) that, once again, will make huge profits, as their executives take home millions in salary, plus bonuses, at our expense.

There are many other people, doing much more important jobs, who make far less money to keep us healthy, fed and secure — at the risk of their own lives.

So, on VE-Day, I will be remembering my grandfather. He was a little guy, with red hair and a grin, unremarkable even in his name. Yet those victory parades were just as much for him as for anyone else, because without the quiet and determined work performed by him and others like him, the wheels of civilization would quickly have ground to a halt.

As the bells ring out in Holland and around the world for the 75th anniversary of war’s end in Europe, I’ll raise a glass in salute to Fred Smith and others like him, then and now.

They have earned it — and more.

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