Wearing a mask puts “we” ahead of “me”

(September 25, 2020)

The ongoing dispute over making face masks mandatory highlights a larger problem in our global society — one that goes far beyond dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

To what extent should individuals be expected – or required — to change their personal behaviour for the benefit of others? Or, to put it another way, how much does “we” matter to “me”?

From the start, non-surgical masks were intended to protect other people from the virus I might be carrying — the droplets spraying out of my nose and mouth. The protests against required masking focus on limits to personal freedom, however, ignoring that protection of others. But living together in society always requires ethical limits on what I am allowed to do as an individual. I might want a red traffic light to mean “go,” but the law requires me to stop instead, whether I like it or not.

To put it another way, again, living in society requires “we” before “me,” much of the time.

And yet, that is not what the advertising machinery of consumer society barrages us with, 24-7, every day of the year. We are told to “shop till you drop,” to measure personal fulfilment through perpetual consumption — what we have, instead of who we are. #MeFirst is so much a part of western consumer culture that it does not need that hashtag to trend on social media.

It is troubling to realize this. For example, it means that U.S. President Donald Trump is not an aberration, but embodies what the American dream has unfortunately become for many people. More than ever before, he has made the presidential election about himself — not about principles or policies, but about his personality. In other words, #MeFirst – and it sucks to be you.

While it is easy to point fingers at our neighbours to the south, it is equally troubling to realize that we have exactly the same problem in Canada. Our political equivalents to President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell are just more polite about it — at least, so far.

In saying this, I am not aligning to the left of the political spectrum: selfishness and privilege are members of every political caucus these days. But if there is a spectrum of social behaviour, I would rather identify with “we” than “me.” The trending hashtag should be #WeFirst, instead.

While COVID-19 — and the unfortunately related masking debate — consumes far too much of our attention these days, larger and more important issues related to the growing climate crisis reveal the scale of the me/we problem we face as a global civilization.

There is some bitter irony in the fact that the Me to We/WE Charity organization was the most high-profile casualty so far of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the mishandling of its involvement with the federal Liberal government. But it was the blood-in-the-water, shark-ish response of the other political parties that sealed its fate. No protestations of the greater good, the unmet needs of unemployed students, the importance of the work the organization had done to this point — none of that mattered, especially to MP Pierre Poilievre, who was Conservative fanatic-in-chief on that file.

It takes little imagination to link the ferocity of the concerted attack on the WE organization to protests over compulsory masking, and to the upcoming debate on mandatory vaccination. In a pandemic society, the idea of “we” is under threat from all sides. “We the people” is increasingly being set against “me and my house,” pitting collective welfare against personal well-being, caring for my neighbour against looking out for No 1. It’s #MeFirst, in everything from toilet paper to partying.

Fundamentally, social compliance is always a matter of personal choice — no government, however tyrannical, survives except by consent of the people. It is impossible to get more than a veneer of acceptance by threat or compulsion, which is why it is so important to shift from a culture of #MeFirst to a culture of #WeFirst.

Whether we are talking about responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, or to the climate crisis that is burning what it is unable to flood, somehow we have to see beyond our own personal horizons and appreciate the situation in which the rest of the world finds itself.

As author Damian Barr tweeted in April, we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same kind of boat. It is very easy to focus on yourself, and ignore others, when you think your boat is large enough to ride out the storm, or when you can head south and avoid the struggles that winter will certainly bring.

Yet when concern for ourselves consistently trumps our concern for others, the survival of global civilization itself is at risk. Choosing to wear a mask in public means more than you realize, to more people than you will ever know.

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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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Ardern, Notley represent different kind of politics

(April 4, 2019)

There is a sign making the rounds on social media that reads, “You know it’s time for a change when children act like leaders and leaders act like children.”

In a long string of recent childish behaviours from leaders, the one exception was Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. She won public admiration for her response to the mass shootings in Christchurch, even from countries where female political leadership is a rarity.

Countries like Canada, in fact. While we celebrate our own Nellie McClung and the other four women who won the “Persons” case, there are far too few women in politics. What’s more, most women who are in politics still seem to hit the glass ceiling when it comes to the top roles.

So as Ardern’s picture was cast on the side of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, headscarf and hug, I thought of another oilpatch thousands of kilometres away where Rachel Notley is trying to become the first re-elected female premier in Canadian history.

In 2018, it didn’t turn out so well for Kathleen Wynne and the people of Ontario. Wynne’s Liberals were not only erased at the polls, but the combination of anti-Wynne sentiment and stay-at-home voters meant Doug Ford was elected premier instead. It will take the province at least a generation to repair the damage Ford has already done, especially on environmental issues.

That’s a generation we don’t have, as the slide toward 2 C global warming continues.

It was a replay (on a smaller scale, with fewer tweets) of what happened in the last U.S. presidential election. Hillary Clinton would have been the first female president in that country, but similar attitudes (and perhaps a bit of Russian meddling) put Donald Trump in the Oval Office instead, with much worse consequences for the planet and for America’s role in global affairs.

Yet when you consider that men (of all colours) inflict military, economic and sexual violence on victims everywhere every day, and that none of the high-profile shooters who have killed children in schools or people at prayer have been female, it is hard not to wonder whether female leaders would do things differently than their male counterparts.

At the very least, women in political leadership deserve to be judged for their character and competence, and not ruled out simply because of their gender.

So, while I have frequently criticized Rachel Notley for her decisions as premier, she has brought a new and different tone to politics in Alberta — a place that previously had one-party rule for longer than anywhere except the Soviet Union, with about as little social tolerance for dissent. In 2015, Albertans not only elected a woman as premier, but one leading an NDP government, and (contrary to predictions) their world did not come to an end.

For the record, Notley is tough and smart, driven by a concern for her constituents and not pulled along by the ideological golden nose ring that her Opposition counterparts (such as Jason Kenney) wear so proudly.

Like many leaders before her, however, she is unfortunately still addicted to doing lines of pipe, instead of finding other and more sustainable ways to make Alberta great again.

But I remember the days of the Heritage Fund, those billions of dollars squirrelled away to ensure Alberta’s future, even occasionally paying dividends. As a native Albertan, living elsewhere for most of my life, I was envious of those who still lived in the Land of No PST.

For years, however, money that should have helped build that fund has been squandered. It could have been used to transition the province away from being a one-cow operation, but it wasn’t. There was no vision at all, as the old white guys in leadership instead wallowed in their bank vaults like Scrooge McDuck.

It was the One Party that made those choices, pulled along by its own nose by financial interests from offshore. It had no concern for future generations — in a pirate economy, focused on plundering public resources for private profit, how could there be?

Certainly, Alberta politics and this election campaign have been marred by the kind of juvenile behaviour that the social media sign deplores. Canada needs leaders like Jacinda Ardern, including female ones, but we don’t need to import them from New Zealand.

I am not saying Notley should win re-election in Alberta because she is a woman, however. That would demean the significant contributions she and her government have made to the province and to Canada in the past four years.

But I am saying that, in 2019, she certainly should not lose the election because she is a woman.

If the misogynists join forces again with the people who don’t vote, it would mean the dinosaurs still rule the Alberta badlands after all.

And, just like in Ontario and the United States, that could spell disaster for everyone.

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