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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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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