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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Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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