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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The new ‘normal’ won’t look like the old one

(April 24, 2020)

WITH the first probable cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba having been identified on March 12, we have been living with the pandemic and its implications for more than a month and a half.

It is hard to listen to the news, every day, and hear the death tolls around the world. It is hard to read the stories of people who have lost family members, friends and colleagues. It is incredible how much has changed in such a short period of time.

If you offered a silent wish for things to return to “normal” about now, you would not be alone. Yet the pandemic doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. Nor is that desired return to “normal” necessarily a good idea.

If you watch your social media, you will see a wide range of “Living with COVID-19” stories.

There are those with privilege, whose work or income remains uninterrupted, who have no children at home as “co-workers” whom they now have to school, on top of learning to work remotely for employers who expect the same level of performance as before, with perhaps a well-stocked liquor cabinet, a judicious pot supply, Netflix to binge-watch after a nice afternoon nap, or some combination of all three, for these lucky few it has been a pyjamas-clad month, interrupted only by food-delivery services and the occasional awkward Zoom meeting.

That privileged experience jars with the reality of other households, who are confined to smaller spaces, with poor internet or none, without cable television — but still with children to amuse, all day long, because teaching is impossible or impractical. Finding enough food, and praying for the means to buy it, is a constant, daily anxiety — and perhaps something that has never been a concern before, because there once was a steady job that is now gone, maybe for good.

Then there are the people who live alone. For them, isolation really does mean isolation — face-to-face conversation means getting a response from the cat. Electronic devices make some human interaction possible, but require both money and the technical ability to use them. For many seniors, especially those who are now locked into care facilities in an effort to keep them safe, even a telephone may be out of the question.

Some businesses flipped to remote operation in a matter of days; others face closure for longer than they can afford, assuming they are even able to reopen. For millions of Canadians, steady income has stopped, but those Visa bills and mortgage payments keep on coming, with interest rates unchanged. Government help is not fast enough — or not enough, period — and too many people and organizations here are falling through the cracks.

Then there are the essential-services workers, who still have jobs outside the home, but are fraught with anxiety because of the risks they now face, every day, for the same meagre wages as before. New sanitation requirements, shortages of personal protective equipment, stress and tension everywhere they work — on top of the daily concern for their own families — create a perfect mental-health storm.

How much more can we take, and for how much longer? Glib answers from anyone about imminent returns to “normal” are wrong, however, for two reasons:

First, if we return too soon, all these sacrifices will be pointless, as the virus roars back from somewhere else and the second wave starts. What’s more, global problems require global solutions — our lives are interwoven with those of everyone on the planet, and our decisions need to be, too.

Second, there is actually no going back to “the way we were,” except in song. Any person, any business, any organization — and especially any politician — who thinks we will ever go back to the old “normal” is delusional.

Comparisons are already being made to the aftermath of the Great Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Add to them the Great War that set up these global disasters, and the world of 1914 was clearly gone forever.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, we need to remember that while U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” pulled the United States out of its Depression, in Germany and Italy, a return to prosperity was offered through nationalism, fascism, genocide and war.

I fear we face a similar choice today. Especially after the Great Pandemic, we need a Green New Deal for the planet — the same one that two months ago we apparently couldn’t afford — but attempting a remix instead of the old elitism, economic disparity and racial injustice will only set the stage for further global disaster.

For some readers, such problems seem light years away from what’s happening here. For others, they are already local realities, every day.

Whatever the new “normal” will be, however, it can’t look and feel like the old one, or our troubles are just beginning.

The world of 2019 is gone forever. What better choices will we make together in 2020?

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COVID-19 response will cement Pallister’s legacy

(April 8, 2020)

As the water levels rise again this spring, Winnipeggers are less anxious than others who live along riverbanks. Sheltered behind the recently expanded floodway, we have safely managed several “floods of the century” since the city was swamped in 1950.

Duff Roblin did not regard that 1950 flood as an isolated event, something unlikely to reoccur in his time as premier. Instead, he took the lesson of that flood to heart, and did something generations of Manitobans since have appreciated. It is his legacy.

“Duff’s Ditch” was an object of derision at the time, however. He paid a political price for digging it. His government put principle ahead of politics, doing what was right instead of what kept people happy.

Premier Brian Pallister has watched Manitoba deal with a flood of another kind, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. Mostly because of our geography, we are behind the lethal numbers seen elsewhere. Outside of the Festival du Voyageur, Manitoba in February is simply not a travel destination for tourists who have a choice.

In this brief breath before the first big wave of the pandemic hits here, there are already some lessons to be learned. We will be watching to see what kind of leadership Premier Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government provide, and whether he personally has the wisdom in crisis that a good leader must demonstrate to keep the confidence of the people.

Right now, I have some serious doubts, but in the hopes that first impressions are misleading, and that, in a crisis, good advice from all sides is needed and heeded, I offer the following:

1. This is not “the Pandemic of the Century.” It is the pandemic of 2019-21. There will be more pandemics, and likely subsequent waves of COVID-19. We need to plan ahead to minimize the impact of future pandemics on health care, communities, education and the economy.

2. Local communities and neighbourhoods matter. Resources geared to strengthening them are essential. Budgets should not be trimmed at the expense of libraries, recreation centres, pools and other local community infrastructure. In a pandemic, we need neighbours.

3. Basic essential services must be supported in local communities, not centralized elsewhere under the guise of “efficiency.” This would include basic medical, dental, prescription drugs and food services. There should be no “food deserts” or any other kind of local hole in essential services.

4. Reducing dependence on essential supplies from elsewhere is critical. Borders can be closed, and will be. What happens to local communities if the trucks and trains stop? We need to develop and support all stages of food production in Manitoba, for example, from farm to plate.

5. Education systems need a plan, with resources and supplies, for moving back and forth between in-class and distance delivery. This requires both the right technology, so no Manitoban child is left behind because they can’t afford the equipment, and the right pedagogy. The answer to every distance education question is not Zoom.

6. High-speed internet everywhere in the province is essential. The technology is available to do this. Even communities right around Winnipeg have poor service — or none at all. To allow for education and work to be done at home, everyone needs the same level of access, not just those in prime locations or who have the money to pay.

7. Guaranteed basic income is necessary, with housing to suit that budget. Raise the floor, and there will be less need for social services and emergency supports, less child poverty, and less dependence on the charity of others that can disappear when times get tough.

8. We must identify core medical supplies in the event of a mass event such as COVID-19 and stockpile enough for six months. Identify local suppliers or industries than can be quickly retooled to provide additional supplies.

9. Encourage essential services to abandon “just in time” delivery practices and return to maintaining local inventory of crucial items — for those times when the trucks will be forced to stop.

10. Electrify the province. We could be virtually self-sustaining in terms of electricity for vehicles and heating, but instead we rely on energy from away that also generates greenhouse gas emissions and fuels global warming. We already make electric buses for people elsewhere!

Resilience and sustainability depend upon us living close to home. This is not only true in pandemics, but also — and especially — in a world facing climate crisis. The problems will grow, not go away.

Mr. Pallister, I met your mother once. I’m sure she would have told you to put on a necktie, sit up straight at those briefings, fix your hair and take charge. Rely on the wisdom around you, from wherever, and make a practical, sustainable plan for Manitoba’s future.

“Pallister’s Plan” — in Manitoba’s 150th year, that would be a legacy to remember.

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