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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Balancing COVID-19 risks and benefits

(September 9, 2020)

As the next wave of COVID-19 hits Manitoba, just as school resumes, there is a lot of conversation about risk. Unfortunately, much of that conversation is skewed and unhelpful, because people (and governments) use the word in two different ways.

First, there is risk management (or mitigation). Second, there is risk-benefit analysis. We need to be clear which one we mean, or our conversations about risk just turn into confusion and conflict.

Trying to live without risk is impossible. Even staying in bed is risky. Yet we find ways to reduce or mitigate risk every day.

For example, the best way to mitigate the risks involved in travelling outside your home is not to travel at all. Stay home. But obviously, few people are in a position to earn an income, receive services, get education, raise children and shop without ever leaving their home. We all assume some level of risk, therefore, every time we step outside the door.

Apply this to life in a pandemic: while our level of risk rises with the case count, we still need to accept there is unavoidable risk involved in all of our activities. Mitigating risk means reducing the probability of a bad event, but it is impossible to eliminate risk altogether.

Of course, the best way to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection is to stay away from other people, in groups or individually. But this is not easily done, and very much depends on where we live, how we live, and how we make a living.

So when you meet other people, mitigating risk means wearing a mask. It might offer you some protection, in terms of reducing your chances of contracting the virus, but it will certainly help to protect other people from any virus you might be carrying. Face-shields and other forms of PPE at work will help reduce your risk there, too.

This leads to the second way of understanding risk: risk-benefit analysis. Any risk I personally choose to assume needs to have a corresponding benefit. There is a risk to being employed, whether from commuting, workplace hazards or, now, from COVID-19, but we accept that risk because of the benefit.

It is unreasonable to expect someone to assume a personal risk when there is no personal benefit. This is the problem with everything from restaurants to shopping to school. If I want a burger, I can buy it many places. So I will eat at the restaurant that most mitigates my personal risk of getting COVID-19 — they get the benefit of my business, but I only get a burger.

I want groceries — but will shop at the grocery store that takes every precaution to protect its customers, from sanitizing everything in sight to requiring masks on employees and customers. That store gets the benefit of my business, because the store (and its employees) demonstrate they care about the personal risks I am assuming for shopping there.

I want my kids to go to school, but the benefit to them (and to me) has to balance against the risk. Otherwise, it is not reasonable to send my kids to school, knowing there is a danger for them and for everyone in my family bubble. The school system has to mitigate whatever risk there is, or the kids (and their teachers) should stay home and find some other way to learn.

The problem with school, of course, is that while there is clearly a public benefit to public schooling, from employing teachers to educating students to become useful citizens, the risks are entirely personal. Granted, there are also some family benefits — child care being one of them — but there also need to be benefits to students for the risks they are assuming.

The greatest benefits of going to school are mostly social (not the curriculum, which can be taught at home quite effectively) — where “social” means kids interacting with friends and teachers. I have to wonder if, these days, such social benefits balance against the personal risks involved in returning to face-to-face classes, when students are masked, physically distanced and not allowed close encounters of any kind during the day.

Of course, being able to study at home is difficult (or impossible) for too many children — especially those who depended on the breakfast and lunch programs in schools before. But finding alternative ways of delivering education and food to these students is different from claiming the only educational option is “back to regular classes for everyone” and expecting it will work in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

Yes, there is a risk in sending kids back to in-person learning at school. But has that risk been mitigated, when provincial and federal governments are only now releasing funds (minimal at that) to make the institutional changes required? I don’t think so — we would be lucky to make upgrades to things such as school ventilation systems by January.

Have the benefits been clearly identified of returning to face-to-face classes, in comparison to other less risky forms of education? What’s more, given the explosive rate of new infections experienced elsewhere when kids return to school, how long will this situation even last, before everyone is packed home in isolation/lockdown, unprepared once again to teach or learn from home?

What about the psychological effects on children, who will obviously be anxious not only for their own health, but afraid of infecting their families, just because they went to school? What do we say to the children whose parent or grandparent gets sick (or possibly dies) as a result? “Do your homework”?

Deciding to assume risks during the COVID-19 pandemic is — and should be — a personal choice, made in the family context of the people with whom we are sharing our “bubble.” Mitigating those risks is only common sense, but coercing people to do what they don’t want to do “for the greater good of society” is a dangerous step for any government to take, especially when there are other options.

I am concerned about my neighbours’ health, and am willing to adjust how I live to decrease the chances of me hurting them. So I wear a mask in public, reduce the number of times I leave home, and limit the number of people with whom I interact.

But personal decisions like these also need to consider what real benefits are involved. Demanding personal risks for vague social benefits — or none at all — will guarantee people stop listening to the government, at whatever level, and do what clearly benefits them and their family instead.

Yet community problems require community solutions — not just everyone looking out for themselves. We have already seen how that worked, back in March and April, both to flatten the curve and to care for fellow Manitobans, spontaneously, despite being caught by surprise.

This September, there is no surprise — except that we have wasted the summer on wishful thinking, instead of preparing a pandemic response that appropriately balances risks and benefits for everyone affected.

As the acorns fall, the leaves turn colour and the birds fly south, we know that winter is coming, all too soon.

There are some things we can’t change, but we can adapt and prepare for what we know surely lies ahead.

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Plan now for return to school

(July 28, 2020)

You don’t have to be a parent of school-age children, or a teacher, to be worried about what will happen come September.

The summer months trickle away, and we have no more to go on than vague ideas about reduced classroom size, alternate school days, and expecting children — even teenagers — to embrace physical distancing instead of each other.

As caseloads soar in the United States, this educational paralysis needs to stop. We have to plan for the reality that either there will be no face-to-face teaching this fall, or whatever meagre attempts are begun in September, the wheels will quickly fall off and schools again will be closed.

Because it’s summer, we are keeping things under control, for now, so the push is on to return people to work — even if the government has to bribe them. In this political and economic climate, however, parents and teachers can expect no overt help from educational officials to prepare for the next school year. They need to make contingency plans of their own.

So, drawing upon my 30-plus years as a teacher and almost as many as a parent, here are some suggestions.

Sit down with your kids and make a list of what worked and what didn’t work in the spring. For both lists, figure out why, then ask what could be done to fix the problems. There may be answers that can be worked out over the summer (such as special study spaces, or new equipment, or better schedules), and other things that can’t be changed. Enlisting your kids’ help to analyze the situation will enable their co-operation, and may even offer solutions you hadn’t considered before.

Don’t assume distance education is automatically worse than face-to-face. It is different. In fact, it is really only missing two elements — touch (which we are not supposed to be doing anyway) and smell. Now, classroom odours might help students remember things better, but I’ll bet daily cookie-baking would be a better memory aid.

So, work with that difference. If you have the technological tools, there is much that can be done over the internet to engage students with more interactive learning (say, in math) than most would ever get in a physical classroom. Video tools can be used on tablets to have students interact with each other and with “teachers” (grandparents? Other relatives at a distance?) Reading out loud is easily supported that way — or if a telephone is required instead, a headset is a cheap addition.

If the kids have smartphones, they are an easy distraction, so boundaries of when to use them might be necessary — but they can also be used for making videos, researching assignments and lots of other (supervised) interactive activities.

Most importantly, don’t assume your kids will “fall behind” in this next year — whatever that means. Survey the curriculum with a critical eye, and you will find that, apart from basic math, reading and writing skills, the information they learn is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, even Grade 12 sciences are normally retaught “the right way” in first-year university courses… making Grade 4 science more fun to do than life-altering if it is missed.

If Manitoba Education started grappling with real-world pandemic issues, the department should announce right now that once the vaccine is available, students will be able to get credit for their missed grades by passing a challenge exam on the materials required for that level — and then circulate a study guide for parents to follow.

Even without that, focusing on the real 3R basics (reading, writing and ’rithmetic) would still be an important way of improving your kids’ educational outlook and opportunities. The pandemic may, in fact, offer a blessing in disguise — and, for once, make the digital divide irrelevant.

Over the years, I have seen a substantial decline in literacy — not just the inevitable complaints about students’ inability to write, but especially a decline in their ability to read. Parents are partly to blame — check around your house, and count the books there… and then count how many books your children have seen you read yourself, in the last year.

The inability to read quickly is disastrous in any field of study. So, can’t afford the new computer? Lousy internet? Get them to read books instead — any books will do. Simply words in a row.

A pandemic educational plan should include increasing your library. Perhaps we need a neighbourhood book swap every Sunday morning until fall, with books left at the curb. People whose kids are grown have lots of books; it is a matter of arranging safe local distribution, which could be organized over the summer through social media.

Make improved reading skills (and writing stories) the focus of home education this next year, and your kids will ace those exams in the fall of 2021, and beyond.

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